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What’s Wrong With High SPF?

High SPF sunscreens not only overpromise protection but, according to the Food and Drug Administration, they may also overexpose consumers to UVA rays and raise their risk of cancer. In 2019 the FDA proposed to limit sun protection factor, or SPF, values to 60 and require increased UVA protection (FDA 2019). Those proposed rules were thrown out with the passage of sunscreen legislation included in a coronavirus stimulus bill. It is expected that the FDA will reintroduce similar rules within the coming year.

Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than do people who rely on products with lower SPF values. In some studies that compared SPF 50 to SPF 100 products, the people who used the SPF 100 had slightly lower rates of sunburn, but both groups had participants who got burned. The ratio of UVA protection decreases as SPF increases, and the concern is that the higher SPF products lead to greater UVA exposure and potentially greater long-term skin damage. The concerns about overexposure to UVA radiation and consumers being misled are the reasons the FDA proposed an SPF cap in 2019.

Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than do people who rely on products with lower SPF values.

People trust these high SPF products too much.

There are five key strikes against SPF values greater than 50. They include:

1. Poor balance The chemicals that form a product’s SPF are aimed at blocking UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma (von Thaler 2010). UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are harder to block with sunscreen ingredients approved by the FDA for use in American sunscreens. UVA exposure suppresses the immune system, causes harmful free radicals to form in skin, and is associated with higher risk of developing melanoma.

A sunscreen lotion’s SPF rating has little to do with its capacity to shield the skin from UVA rays. As a result of FDA restrictions on ingredients and concentrations, U.S. sunscreens offer far less protection against UVA than UVB rays, and this is worst for products with the highest SPF values. Because UVA and UVB protection do not harmonize, high-SPF products suppress sunburn much more effectively than they do other types of sun damage. Five leading sunscreen scientists tested 20 U.S. sunscreens for UVA and UVB protection and found that just two of the seven with SPF values of 50+ and greater would pass the European test for UVA protection (Wang 2017). The remaining five didn’t provide enough UVA protection to be sold in Europe.

2. Consumers misuse high-SPF products. High-SPF products tend to lull users into staying in the sun longer with a false sense of security and overexposing themselves to both UVA and UVB rays well past the point when users of low-SPF products would head indoors. As a result, they get as many UVB-inflicted sunburns as unprotected sunbathers and are likely to absorb more damaging UVA radiation.

Philippe Autier, a scientist formerly with the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, has conducted many studies of sunbathers and believes that high-SPF products spur “profound changes in sun behavior” that may account for the increased melanoma risk found in some studies. In two studies, Autier confirmed that European vacationers spent more total time in the sun if they were given an SPF 30 sunscreen instead of an SPF 10 product (Autier 1999, 2000). We presume the difference would also apply to products with SPF values greater than 50.

3. Sunburn protection that is only marginally better. Sunbathers often assume they get twice as much protection from SPF 100 sunscreen as from SPF 50. But the extra protection is negligible. Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98 percent of UVB rays; SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values between 30 and 50 offers adequate sunburn protection, even for people most sensitive to sunburn.

4. High-SPF products may not really be high SPF. When Procter & Gamble tested a competitor’s SPF 100 product at five different labs, the results varied, from SPF 37 to SPF 75. The company determined that a very small difference in test conditions can dramatically affect the calculated SPF. In this case, a 1.7 percent change in light transmission yields an SPF measurement of 37 instead of 100. Small differences in application thickness could have a similar effect. Because of the way SPF values are calculated, these errors would be most dramatic for high-SPF products.

In a letter to the FDA, P&G warned that the intense UV light used in lab tests of SPF differs from real-world conditions and so it is of “dubious value.” The company concluded that SPF values should be capped at 50+, because the current system is “at best, misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision” (P&G 2011). The FDA recently proposed a cap of 60+.

5. High-SPF products may pose greater health risks. High-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than low-SPF sunscreens do. Some of these ingredients may pose health risks when they penetrate the skin and have been linked to tissue damage and potential hormone disruption. Some may trigger allergic skin reactions. If studies showed that high-SPF products were better at reducing skin damage and skin cancer risk, the extra chemical exposure might be justified. But they don’t, so choosing sunscreens with lower concentrations of active ingredients – SPF 30 instead of SPF 70, for example – is prudent.

The FDA has long contended that SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading” (FDA 2007). Australian authorities cap SPF values at 30, European and Japanese regulators at 50 (Osterwalder 2009b), and Canada allows a maximum of 50+. In 2011, the FDA proposed a regulation prohibiting labels higher than SPF 50+; however, in its final draft sunscreens monograph, released in 2019, the agency proposed raising the cap to 60+. According to the agency, there is a “lack of data showing that sunscreens with SPF values above 60 provide additional meaningful clinical benefit.” EWG believes the FDA should reconsider this change and instead cap values at 50+.


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About the ratings

EWG provides information on sunscreen products from the published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate both efficacy and the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other sunscreens. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors which determine actual health risks, if any. Methodology | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

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