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Group says sunscreen makers cheat on SPF labels

Environmental Working Group calls for FDA investigation of ingredients and testing methods

by Marc S. Reisch
August 29, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 34

Credit: Shutterstock
Anti-inflammatory additives artificially boost sunscreen SPF levels, EWG contends.
Photo of a person applying sunscreen.
Credit: Shutterstock
Anti-inflammatory additives artificially boost sunscreen SPF levels, EWG contends.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is calling on FDA to investigate the use of ingredients in sunscreens that it contends artificially boost sun protection factor (SPF) values on product labels without providing commensurate protection from the sun’s skin-damaging ultraviolet rays. EWG also wants the agency to reevaluate its own SPF testing method, which the group claims is in part responsible for the subterfuge.

EWG alleges that some sunscreen formulators are adding agents with anti-inflammatory effects, such as butyloctyl salicylate and bisabolol, and antioxidant effects, such as vitamins C and E, to conceal sunburn.

By using such ingredients, “FDA tests can be gamed,” contends EWG senior scientist David Andrews. He calls the agency’s SPF test method, which is based on when a person’s skin starts to turn red, “outdated” and “subjective.” EWG determines SPF values using computer modeling and in vitro methods that typically deliver ratings much lower than FDA’s in vivo method.

As an example of a sunscreen whose SPF value is higher than EWG calculates, Andrews points to Banana Boat Sport SPF 100. A spokesperson for Edgewell Personal Care, the product’s maker, says the company stands by the SPF rating, which was determined by independent labs using FDA test protocols.

Sunscreen makers add ingredients with anti-inflammatory properties for benefits including protection against reddening, or erythema. But such ingredients are unlikely to affect the SPF values of Edgewell products, the spokesman claims, “because their anti-erythemic effect is relatively short-lived compared to the 16- to 24-hour interval between UV exposure and the erythema observation in the FDA SPF test.”

The manager of a cosmetics testing lab, who declined to be named for fear of losing business, tells C&EN that he agrees with EWG that some of the ingredients his clients add seem to artificially boost SPF ratings. Andrews admits that EWG is not entirely sure how all the ingredients interact in a sunscreen, but that is why EWG wants FDA to take a closer look at the ingredients and test methods.



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