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SNEWSitorial: Revelations in SNEWS’ ‘Getting Burned’ sunscreen investigation demand legislative, federal action

When we started to take a look at sunscreens, the intent wasn’t the shocking, three-part investigation that we published in late May -- a series that has quickly become among our most-read and -forwarded stories ever. SNEWS believes it’s time for the FDA finally to assert some control -- and that may mean a legislative prod. Consumers raising their voices won’t hurt either. What do you think? Read and chime in.

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If normally skeptical journalists can be so mislead, no wonder Joe and Jane Consumer are left duped and in danger when it comes to sunscreen.

Over the years, I had trusted what I’d read on sunscreen labels as proved and backed by the government since sunscreen products are, of course, drugs. Broad-spectrum, waterproof, oil-free, fragrance-free…you name it, I read the claims like a good consumer and assumed if they were printed on the label, they had to be true. And ingredient lists were no help since all those chemical names just lost me from the get-go.

My intent about 10 months ago when I began research for a story for SNEWS® was not to do an investigation into the world of sunscreens, sun-protection misconceptions, brand marketing hyperbole and FDA inaction. Nope, I just wanted to write a story about what not to do with sunscreen rather than the run-of-the-mill mundane story that everybody else writes with do’s and don’ts (“apply liberally,” “reapply frequently,” “wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen,” etc.)

I started to ask questions and the answers I got carried me farther and farther down the rabbit hole. We indeed ended up publishing a three-part investigation on May 26, May 28 and May 31 (with anextra resources article that also ran on May 31) that pulled back the cloak on sunscreen myths, marketing and government inaction. I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was in fact really quite angry. I realized that my generation, the Baby Boomers, was in danger since we were some of the first who not only spent a lot more time in the sun with very little clothes on (think bikinis and teeny shorts and tank tops … or no tops), but we were also the first to be raised thinking a tan was a sign of good health.

I’d rant to friends on long trail runs about how I was discovering manufacturers could make marketing claims on labels that weren’t necessarily true (or just barely true), how the FDA basically hadn’t done much of anything when it came to sunscreens since the topic first landed on its radar in 1978, and some ingredients liberally used could in fact be a health hazard. Then I had friends start to tell me about all their sunbathing growing up. All the dangerous little chunks of skin they now were having frozen off or dug out of their faces and arms a couple of times a year, and about their friends who had such big chunks dug out some part of their body they had to have reconstructive surgery. And I’d recall the stories we’d written just in the last year in SNEWS about a couple of industry folks who unbeknownst to them had developed a melanoma cancer and, before it was found, it had spread so far into other body parts, including their brains, that they passed away in a few months.

Not burning not a help

I was not raised a sunbather type. I can count on two fingers the sunburns I had — helps that I’ve got a Mediterranean background and an olive complexion — and I’ve used sunscreen religiously for 25 years. Plus, I was just too hyper to lie in the sun all day. So I’m grateful, for sure, but what about all those rays I got even if I didn’t burn? That’s one of the major issues I discovered: the SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, ratings have left us all feeling a little too secure. As we described in our special series, it seems they only rank the danger from burning from UVB rays. The SPF ratings have utterly nothing to do with the danger of deeper cell damage from more lethal UVA rays that can cause horrible cancers — the kind that at best disfigure you and at worse kill you in a few months. And if you use enough of the UVB-blocking lotions and don’t burn, you also don’t get the uh-oh warning that you better put on clothes, get under cover or go indoors. Thus, you were actually leaving yourself even more at risk.

One shot glass

Then we have the problem of figuring out how much to apply. Over the years we’ve all read the rather non-definitive “apply generously” or “reapply frequently,” but who knows what that means anyway? Most people don’t apply enough (because it’s gooey, can turn you white and exposed skin can be a large surface to cover) and most people don’t reapply as much as they should. Why? Because there is no set amount specified by brands or most advocates. Oh sure, every once in a while you hear the “one shot glass” per application, then you go about your merry way, applying what feels like enough.

We researched and read and pried, trying to put some understandable quantity definition on how much you really need to slather on. FDA testing protocol for SPF requires 2 milligrams per 1 square centimeter. OK, so that doesn’t help. Another manufacturer tried to explain the “one shot glass” per application rule and came up with U.S. Army anthropometric measures that concluded 28,500 milligrams would be needed to cover an average adult male who had 75 percent of his body exposed. That’s equal to a smidge over 1 ounce. Voila, the shot glass measure. Think about it: Many sunscreen bottles are only two to six fluid ounces. Go on a week-long vacation and put on sunscreen just twice a day and you already need one humongo bottle or two just for you, not to mention the family.

FDA inaction

I am so frankly shocked that our federal government, those folks at the FDA who are supposed to be helping us and protecting us, have sat immobilized for just about 32 years now. When the cat’s away, the mice will play. And so the mice have been playing in the world of sunscreen manufacturers where sales are worth a few billion each year. Sure, some stick up for the FDA — we were told that they have gotten so many comments about their documents and proposals to read and, by law, the FDA muckety-mucks have to read them all. But for 32 years? Give us a break. Pass something and stop playing the political game. We are suspicious the manufacturers are doing their best political lobbying. For one, this inaction leaves some brands, in the name of marketing, able to say nearly whatever they want about a product — as far as their ethics allow — duping trusting consumers. And then when some brands play games with labels, others feel forced to fudge a little too just so they can compete on the shelf. Second, we know it will cost many, many billions of dollars in relabeling, redesigning, remolding containers, even reformulating and coming up with new marketing strategies. We’re not sure the larger manufacturers really want the FDA to pass any final documents.

Shocking inattention

So how come more journalists and other watchdogs haven’t blown the whistle? We are baffled. The Environmental Working Group, rather unfortunately, has perhaps done more damage since its calls-to-action are so spectacular that nobody believes all the dire warnings about chemical dangers. Legislators, including Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., have introduced bills that would force the FDA to pass SOMEthing within 180 days of the bill being approved. But they languish in committees. Not enough glitz and glamour for Congress to pay much attention?

As scary as it sounds, there are amazing similarities here to the smoking issue: It took many many decades, many many deaths from cancer, and countless cover-ups by manufacturers about how their tobacco products weren’t the problem before the government took action. Granted, we aren’t saying all sunscreen manufacturers are evil and that all sunscreen is bad. To the contrary: Something is better than nothing and many brands are trying their darndest. However, sunbathing and getting a tan has been portrayed as cool, hip and “in,” just as smoking was depicted as cool, hip and in — even though in the end, it could kill you.

We believe the FDA needs to be prodded into action to ensure a level playing field and restore trust and safety to the sunscreen products upon which consumers are counting to protect them. This will force the less-than-ethical manufacturers to toe the line when it comes to claims — allowing the more ethical manufacturers, many of which are in the sports and outdoor markets, to not push their claims as far to compete.

And perhaps there should be a warning label on sunscreen products that sunbathing and tanning can be hazardous to your health. What the country needs is a national ruckus, a national media campaign, and some high-placed public figures or celebrities stepping forward about the issue. But we, unfortunately, don’t think this is going to happen quickly — just as it took decades for tobacco brands to reveal how they knew all along the dangers of smoking. In fact, it was only in May 2009 that a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that indeed the tobacco companies had lied for decades about the dangers of tobacco use. And that case, which had been filed in 1999 by the Clinton administration, took a full 10 years to be decided.

In the meantime, it’s caveat emptor. It’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and to protect ourselves, as well as to educate the consumers who are buying your products and shopping in your stores. Wear (or sell) the best sunscreen you can get. Wear (and promote wearing) clothes and covering up as much as you can. Stay out of the hottest, most-penetrating, mid-day rays, and educate people to do that. And write your legislators, even sending them links to our three-part SNEWS investigation and this editorial — we’ll provide special URLs to anyone who asks to ensure your legislators don’t have to subscribe or log-in to read these important stories. Meanwhile, be in touch with your comments, plans and feedback. We look forward to continuing our coverage of the issue.

–Therese Iknoian