Conference Coverage

Sunscreens: Misleading labels, poor performance, and hype about their risks



– Heads up! “Natural” mineral-based sunscreens don’t provide the protection of their rivals. Patients may get burned by scary hype about the supposed dangers of sunscreen. And sunscreen spray is great for the scalp of people whose hair is thinning.

In a presentation on sunscreens at the annual Coastal Dermatology Symposium, Vincent DeLeo, MD, of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, offered the following tips on sunscreen and more.


Here’s a roundup of his pearls:

Sunscreens are getting better and are faring poorly, too.

There’s good news and bad news about the strength and reliability of sunscreens.

On one hand, sunscreens are more powerful than in the past, Dr. DeLeo said. A 2013 comparison of sunscreens in 1997 and 2009 found that, among available sunscreens, the percentage of those with low SPF (under 15) fell from 27% to 6% during that time. (The Food and Drug Administration declared in 2011 that manufacturers must tell consumers that low SPF and/or non–broad spectrum sunscreens protect only against sunburn, not against skin cancer or skin aging.) The study also found that the percentage of sunscreens with UVA-1 (such as avobenzone or zinc oxide) filters grew from 5% to 70% (Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2013 Jan;12[1]:197-202).

But the label of sunscreens may not always be accurate. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports wrote that 36 of 73 sunscreens tested failed to correctly list their SPF protection level; 23 sunscreens missed their listed SPF levels by more than half. “Natural” or “mineral-only” sunscreens, which rely on such blockers as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, performed the worst. Some patients prefer to use these sunscreens because they aren’t chemical based, and “may want to have a more natural sunscreen,” Dr. DeLeo said. “But they should be aware the sunscreens don’t always live up to the SPF level on the label.”

Beware of warnings about sunscreens.

Reports have warned Americans about supposed risks of sunscreen use such as low vitamin D levels from the lack of sun exposure, the exposure to titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles, and the exposure to retinyl palmitate in sunscreen. Hawaiian officials, meanwhile, are banning some types of sunscreen chemicals in order to protect coral reefs.

Typical use of sunscreen will not dangerously lower vitamin D levels, Dr. DeLeo said, but people who use it every day may want to be cautious. He dismissed the concerns about nanoparticles and retinyl palmitate.

Dr. DeLeo said two sunscreen risks are real; sunscreens can trigger irritation, at a rate as high as 20%, and, rarely, allergic reactions, as well.

American sunscreens don’t stack up worldwide.

Simplicity often is a virtue. But, Dr. DeLeo said, it’s not helpful when it comes to the components of American sunscreens.

U.S. regulations only allow 16 ingredients in sunscreen while several more are allowed in Europe, he said. According to him, this helps explain why European sunscreens do a better job. European sunscreens “are much more absorbent, much better at absorbing radiation than the U.S. sunscreens,” he said. “It’s because we don’t have the same products as they have in Europe.”

The good news, he said, is that the FDA is considering expanding the number of ingredients allowed in sunscreen. The Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014, a law passed by Congress, allows the FDA to use efficacy and safety data from Europe without requiring manufacturers to launch new, multimillion dollar tests, he said.

That’s good news for companies that want to improve U.S. sunscreens by selling a wider variety of types. “Sooner or later,” he said, “we will probably get these.”

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