Lawsuit asks: Is your sunscreen doing its job?
From Kim McCabe and Greg Hunter
Some sunbathers may not be getting the protection they expect from their sunscreens.
Sunscreen may not be perfect but it's till the best tool available to prevent skin cancer. Experts also recommend taking these precautions to minimize the harmful effects of the sun:
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CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- How confident are you when you slather on sunscreen? What do "waterproof," "all day," "UVA/UVB protection," and "sunblock," mean to you? An important step in protecting against skin cancer, right?
A lawsuit is alleging fraud, negligence and intentional deception in the marketing and labeling of some products sold by Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, Bull Frog and Neutrogena.
The companies deny the claims in the class action, filed by attorneys including Sam Rudman, in late March in California Superior Court.
"This lawsuit is for the American public who, in our view, has been fleeced by sunscreen manufacturers by buying a product that's been knowingly mislabeled," Rudman said
Dr. James Spencer is a dermatologic surgeon and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology, said current sunscreen labels are "the best tool we've got. But they are far from perfect, as the skin cancer rates we see today tell us."
Those rates are on the rise. In April, the American Academy of Dermatology called skin cancer an "unrecognized epidemic." More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year.
The labels on most sunscreens sold in American stores today prominently advertise: "UVA-UVB sunblock" or "UVA-UVB protection." What they don't reveal is how much protection they're giving you of each.
The lawsuit also challenges these claims, saying they're misleading because American sunscreens are more effective at blocking UVB rays than UVA rays.
The sun projects two types of rays harmful to people, ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B, and sunscreen doesn't provide equal protection against both. The SPF, or sun protection factor, is primarily an indication of a sunscreen's ability to block out UVB rays, the ones that burn the outer layers of the skin. They make it turn red -- nature's way of saying cover up or go inside.
But UVA rays penetrate to deeper layers of skin and are increasingly thought to be a major cause of early wrinkles and melanoma.
It's a sunscreen's ability to filter out these UVA rays that the lawsuit -- and some dermatologists -- question.
Our UVB blockers and screens are really very good, they'll block 97, 98 percent of the UVB rays," Spencer said. "UVA, we fall down. We don't have that level of protection."
Sunscreen makers follow a set of labeling rules the FDA released in 1993.
A new set of rules was published in 1999. It banned claims like "all day," "waterproof," and SPF values higher than 30 on sunscreen labels, saying they were unsupported and potentially misleading. Instead, the FDA asked sunscreen makers to describe their products as "water resistant" or "very water resistant" based on a product's ability to last after 40 to 80 minutes in water.
In spite of that recommendation, "waterproof" is prominent on nearly every bottle.
"There is no 'all day,' there is no 'waterproof' product. It doesn't exist," Spencer said. "I would put water-resistant. Waterproof to me means it will not come off in the water. And that's not true. When you're ... swimming, some of it washes off. That's a fact."
Some products do suggest that consumers periodically re-apply. But it's usually on the back of the label, in fine print.
The FDA permits manufacturers to make these claims because it indefinitely delayed the 1999 guidelines, saying it wanted to give science and the industry more time to work on guidelines for UVA testing and labeling.
The result is that compliance with its 1999 labeling guidelines is voluntary.
CNN asked officials at the Food and Drug Administration why it's taken so long to come up with a set of labeling rules sunscreen makers have to follow.
FDA officials, in an e-mail, said: "The agency is currently working on the rulemaking for OTC sunscreen drug products to address, among other things, UVA testing and labeling issues. We are working to publish the document for this rulemaking in the Federal Register very soon.
The makers of Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropic and Coppertone responded to questions in an e-mail, saying their labels fully comply with all current FDA standards and that their products are safe when used as directed.
The makers of Hawaiian Tropic went on to write: "The rhetoric of the plaintiffs' .. lawyers is motivated by their self interest and greed. Their statements... are contrary to the public's health and are irresponsible.
Schering Plough, the company that makes Coppertone said in a statement: "We believe the suit is without merit and an attempt to exploit the fact that the FDA has not issued final regulations in this area."
When asked about UVA versus UVB protection provided by Coppertone products, the company said, "The product labels and advertisements do not say the same protection applies to the full spectrum of UVA rays, nor do we believe they imply that."
The makers of Banana Boat and Bull Frog sunscreens did not respond to CNN's inquiries.
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