By LINDA A. JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer Thu
Jun 15, 6:06 PM ET
Think slathering on the highest-number sunscreen at the
beach or pool will spare you skin cancer and premature
wrinkles? Probably not, if you're in the sun a lot.
That's because you don't need a sunburn to suffer the
effects that can cause various types of skin cancer.
Sunscreens generally do a good job filtering out the
ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn UVB rays. But with
sunburn protection, many people get a false sense of
security that keeps them under the harsh sun much
longer. That adds to the risk of eventual skin cancer
both deadly melanoma and the more common and
less-threatening basal and squamous cell cancers.
And most sunscreens don't defend nearly as well against
the UVA rays that penetrate deep into the skin and are
more likely to cause skin cancer and wrinkles. That's
true even for some products labeled "broad-spectrum UVA/UVB
Experts say the best protection against UVA is a
sunscreen that includes zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or
avobenzone. Consumers should also look for those that
are water-resistant and have an SPF of 30 or better,
indicating strong protection against UVB rays, and apply
liberally and often.
More important, limit time in the sun, particularly from
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and cover up, including wearing a hat
Often, product labels are confusing or bear misleading
claims. For example, the SPF, or sun protection factor,
refers only to defense against the less harmful UVB
"I don't think people understand they're only getting
protection from part of the spectrum," said Dr. Sandra
Read, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of
Dermatology. "You're accumulating this damage and you
don't know it."
Many sunscreens say little about when to reapply
doctors say at least every two hours and after swimming
or sweating. Nor do they say much about how much to use,
roughly two tablespoons for an adult.
"Most people who use an SPF 15 get the protection
equivalent to an SPF 5 because they put it on" too
thinly, said Dr. Martin A. Weinstock, chairman of the
American Cancer Society's skin cancer advisory group and
a Brown University professor.
While a higher SPF number means more protection, the
difference is small: SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of
UVB rays and SPF 50, often more expensive, blocks about
Most sunscreens work by reacting chemically with the
skin, so they don't start absorbing damaging rays right
away and must be applied a half-hour before going
outside, something many labels fail to note.
And claims such as "waterproof" and "sunblock" are
unsupported, according to the
Food and Drug Administration, which years ago proposed
replacing them with the more-accurate terms "water
resistant" and "sunscreen." Manufacturers, including
Neutrogena Suncare maker Johnson & Johnson and
Coppertone maker Schering-Plough Corp., say they haven't
complied because the FDA still hasn't imposed those
rules a delay that's spawned consumer lawsuits and
pressure on the FDA from Congress and the American
Still, doctors say people shouldn't abandon sunscreen:
They probably should use more.
"Sunscreens do protect against skin cancer," said Dr.
Babar Rao, a dermatologist at Robert Wood Johnson
Medical School in New Jersey. "We definitely still need
sunscreen, even on a cloudy day."
Research has shown heavy sunscreen use lowers risk of
squamous skin cell cancer, which has a high cure rate if
caught early. Another study found heavy sunscreen use in
children reduces the number of moles, which can turn
cancerous later, Weinstock noted.
In 1999, the FDA announced tougher rules for sunscreen
testing and label and ad claims, to take effect in 2001.
But the agency put them on hold indefinitely to do more
tests, said Dr. Matthew Holman, senior scientist at the
FDA's drug evaluation center.
Last fall, Congress ordered the FDA to produce the new
regulations within six months through a provision added
by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in the FDA appropriations
"Twenty years is long enough for the FDA to ensure that
all Americans have equal access to clear, accurate and
comprehensive sunscreen labeling as their first line of
defense against skin cancer," Dodd said, referring to
how long the agency has worked on new rules.
Holman said proposed rules could be announced this
summer, but then there will be lengthy hearings and
revisions. "All we can say is really years" until they
take effect, he said.
This spring, a San Diego-based law firm got pending
lawsuits against makers of the top sunscreens
Coppertone, Neutrogena, Playtex Products' Banana Boat,
Tanning Research Laboratories' Hawaiian Tropic and
Chattem Inc.'s Bullfrog consolidated into one case in
Lead lawyer Samuel Rudman, who has called the makers
"Fortune 500 snake oil salesmen," said manufacturers are
fraudulent in their label claims.
"Our lawsuit doesn't say, 'Don't use sunscreen.' It
says, 'Tell the truth.' If people knew, they would still
use it," Rudman said.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 California residents,
also seeks damages for unspecified injuries and other
The manufacturers either declined to discuss the lawsuit
or said it is without merit.
Despite public education campaigns about avoiding sun
exposure and tanning salons, skin cancer incidence is
climbing. There will be about 62,000 melanoma cases and
7,900 deaths this year, the American Cancer Society
estimates. There are more than 1 million annual cases of
squamous and basal skin cancers, and about 2,800 deaths.
American Cancer Society:
Skin Cancer Foundation: