Just when you thought it was safe to head outside to your Fourth of July picnic, parade, and swim party, an investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is released alleging that nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreen products either fail to adequately protect consumers or contain chemicals that may pose health hazards.

Before we all cancel our plans, note the EWG study is based on non-standard methods and data, as well as subjective judgments, admittedly “customized” safety and effectiveness ratings, and “on a unique, in-house compilation” of industry, government and academic data sources. For what its worth, the study concludes that only 15% of products analyzed met EWG’s subjective criteria for safety and effectiveness, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with “suspected” health hazards.  It thus ignores a fairly extensive, long-standing body of scientific data, as sunscreen products have been thoroughly studied and tested, and used safely for more than 30 years.

Interestingly, the study asserts that many sunscreens contain nano-scale ingredients that raise “concerns.”  (MassTortDefense has posted on nano-technology here.) EWG asserts that powder and spray sunscreens with nano-scale ingredients raise concerns, since the small particles might be absorbed through the lungs. EWG also asserts that some sunscreens absorb into the blood and thus also raise safety concerns. “Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some could disrupt hormone systems, several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, and others may build up in the body or the environment.”

EWG complains that the FDA has not established rigorous safety standards for sunscreen ingredients that fully examines these effects. The activist group also asserts that FDA has approved just 17 sunscreen chemicals for use in the U.S., while at least 29 are approved for use in the E.U.

However, there are currently FDA safety and effectiveness regulations that govern the manufacture and marketing of all sunscreen products. Sunscreens are classified as drugs by the FDA, and the agency requires significant safety and efficacy data on every active ingredient before it is approved for use in a sunscreen product. The agency also has broad authority to inspect manufacturers, require adherence to strict manufacturing practices, and enforce rigorous, science-based regulations to ensure that sunscreen products are safe and effective for consumers.

Moreover, the FDA in 2007 did propose a new regulation that would set standards for formulating, testing and labeling over-the-counter sunscreen products with ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) protection. The proposed regulation creates a consumer-friendly rating system for UVA products designed to help consumers identify the level of UVA protection offered by a product. Ratings would be derived from two tests the FDA proposes to assess the effectiveness of sunscreens in providing protection against UVA light. The first test measures a product’s ability to reduce the amount of UVA radiation that passes through it. The second test measures a product’s ability to prevent tanning. This test is nearly identical to the SPF test used to determine the effectiveness of UVB sunscreen products.

The finalization of the sunscreen safety standards is a complicated regulatory undertaking, addressing complex scientific principles involving countless submissions of data. FDA must thoroughly evaluate all of this information in making the best possible regulatory and scientific decision for consumers.

In the proposed regulations, a “Warnings” statement in the “Drug Facts” box will be required of all sunscreen product manufacturers. The warning would say: “UV exposure from the sun increases the risk of skin cancer, premature skin aging, and other skin damage. It is important to decrease UV exposure by limiting time in the sun, wearing protective clothing, and using a sunscreen.” While the warning is intended to increase awareness that sunscreens are one part of a sun protection program, it seems likely that most adults today understand that exposure to the sun may cause skin damage, up to and including skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.The American Cancer Society has long designated May as Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Many manufacturers provide significant science and risk information on websites, as well as links to organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Skin Association,  the Skin Cancer Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute.