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Understanding Sunscreens

By: Rebecca James Gadberry
Posted: June 23, 2008, from the June 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Q. Is it true that some major companies that sell sun block are being sued for lying about the effectiveness of their products?

A . Yes. In March, two of the United States’ top class action lawsuit firms filed a lawsuit against the makers of five sunscreens marketed as sun blocks—Banana Boat, Bullfrog, Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic and Neutrogena. The suit alleges that certain statements made by these companies create a sense of artificial security that endangers users. “False claims such as ‘sun block,’ ‘waterproof’ and ‘all-day protection’ should be removed from these products immediately,” states Samuel Rudman, a New York-based partner with one of the filing firms, Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins LLP, in a published statement.

Although not widely acknowledged in the sun-protection world, these claims were deleted during the past decade from the terminology allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sunscreens. The agency’s reasoning was very clear: No product can deliver on these types of promises. Sunscreens lessen the amount of exposure the skin has to ultraviolet (UV) rays, but they do not block them altogether. No sunscreen is absolutely waterproof, but if it remains active after 40 minutes of exposure to water, the FDA says it can be described as “water-resistant”; 80 minutes of activity earns it a “very water-resistant” claim. After toweling off, regardless of how much time a person spends in the water, every sunscreen must be reapplied.

However, rather than focusing on whether these claims are rightly made, it’s more important to look at the backlash that can—and probably will—occur from the publicity this lawsuit is getting in the media. After reading headlines stating that sun block companies are being sued for fraud, as well as the media’s favorite quote from Rudman, “Sunscreen is the snake oil of the 21st century, and these companies that market it are Fortune 500 snake oil salesmen,” many of the clients you’ve worked so hard to convince throughout the past 30 years to wear sunscreen may decide to stop this practice because they think they’ve been deceived. That is the tragedy of this lawsuit and the claims that have brought it into being. Although Rudman’s group has made it clear that they aren’t suing because someone was injured, imagine all the people who will be hurt when they develop skin cancer because they stopped using the sunscreens they now believe were sold to them under false pretenses and fraudulent claims.

So what do we do? First, stop referring to sunscreens as sun blocks. They’re not, and the FDA has clearly stated that they are not to be described as such. This is a false promise and is very misleading to your clients who may believe that their skin never will be touched by UV rays as long as they have this product between them and the sun. Instead, use the proper terminology: sunscreens. These products screen out or reflect some—and sometimes most—of the sun’s UV rays, but they don’t block them completely, and to imply that they do is not being honest.