On the website Oprah.com, writer Jenny Bailly touts the benefits of a product called Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF 100+.
“In the SPF numbers game, Neutrogena has taken a decisive lead,” says Bailly, who cautions readers to slather on more of the stuff than they might to ensure complete coverage.
This type of advice is everywhere, and as the days grow longer and hotter more Canadians will be confronted with it as they stand in line for groceries or watch TV.
But it turns out the science behind sky-high Sun Protection Factors is sketchy at best, and deliberately confusing at worst. Most of us make the mistake of believing that because 30 is twice as much as 15, a 30 SPF sunscreen, which is usually more expensive, is twice as effective. But that’s far from the case.
According to The Canadian Cancer Society, SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93% of UVB rays and SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays. That’s a marginal difference, and the numbers get even slimmer as they climb. An SPF 45 product, for instance, blocks about 98% of UVB rays.
“After that, it just gets silly,” says Florida dermatologist James M. Spencer, MD., who presumably does not take his healthcare advice from Oprah.
Consumer advocacy organization Environmental Working Group’s guide to sunscreens give the thumbs up to only about a quarter of beach and sport sunscreens and even fewer makeup and moisturizer products.
Sonya Lunder, Senior Analyst for consumer advocacy organization Environmental Working Group says both Canada and the United States trail Europe in protecting consumers from overly effusive claims by sunscreen manufacturers. She says recent proposals from both are long overdue in protecting consumers not only from misleading labeling, but also from harmful chemicals and nanomaterials.
EWG’s own guide to sunscreens give the thumbs up to only about a quarter of beach and sport sunscreens and even fewer makeup and moisturizer products.
Health Canada classifies some sunscreens as natural health products and some as drugs, depending on whether they contain ingredients such as Oxybenzone, Meradimate, and Drometrizoletrisiloxane. The entity is currently working through an ongoing draft to a 2006 guidance document, which has no force of law, but is intended to help health care professionals comply with governing statutes and regulations.
The document outlines product labeling around UVA, UVB and broad spectrum product claims. It suggests that all SPF values greater than 50 should be declared as “SPF 50+” and that claims that products are suitable for sun-sensitive or fair-skinned persons, or provide “X” times natural protection against sunburn, helps a person to tan, or is waterproof or sweatprooof, are “misleading and counterintuitive”.
Lunder says the Health Canada proposals, if adopted, could pressure the FDA into making similar moves.
A Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of one thousand adults found that sun protection factor is the most important factor in choosing a sunscreen. But the poll found most respondents were woefully uninformed about the products on the shelf. Many believed that the FDA tests sunscreens, that children need a special formula, that products labeled “natural” were safer, and that spray sunscreens provide the best coverage, all of which are untrue.
The survey found that almost one-third of adults used sunscreens with an SPF of 50 or more. The danger of this is that many misuse the products, believing they can stay in the sun longer, or do not need to reapply lotion.
“Consumers continue to perceive high-SPF sunscreens as more effective than lower ones,” said the study.
Below: FDA New Sunscreen Rules explained by Henry Ford’s Dr. Henry Lim