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Does your sunscreen work as advertised?

A lawsuit contends that sunscreens don’t give the

protection manufacturers would have you believe

A lawsuit contends that sunscreens don’t give the

protection manufacturers would have you believe

A San Diego law firm charges in a class action lawsuit that seven of the largest sunscreen manufacturers have misled consumers about how well their products protect against ultraviolet rays.

The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles in March, contends leading sunscreen brands incorrectly market their products as “sunblock” when they don’t block all UVA rays, which can cause skin cancer and other skin ailments. The seven defendants are the manufacturers of Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Bullfrog brand sunscreens.

“Sunscreen is the snake oil of the 21st century, and these companies that market it are Fortune 500 snake oil salesmen,” says Samuel Rudman, a New York-based partner in Lerach, Coughlin, Soia, Geller, Rudman & Robbins, in a statement on the firm’s Web site, . The law firm is one of two litigating nine complaints that make up the lawsuit. “False claims such as ‘sunblock,’ ‘waterproof’ and ‘all-day protection’ should be removed from these products immediately,” he says.

The lawsuit argues that sun protection factor, or SPF, designations apply only to protection from some ultraviolet rays but that manufacturers imply they apply to all ultraviolet rays. Coppertone manufacturer Schering-Plough Corp. of Kenilworth, N.J., says it “vigorously disputes” the suit and claims the labeling and advertising for all of its products are developed in compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.

“For more than 50 years Coppertone has been a leader in the sun care category and has been in the forefront in introducing sunscreen products that provide broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection,” the company said in a statement. “Schering-Plough has worked with the FDA on methods for testing sunscreen effectiveness and on communicating sunscreen benefits to consumers.”

Sunlight includes two types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB, that cause sunburn and skin cancer. Since many sunscreens absorb only UVB rays, dermatologists recommend using sunscreens with ingredients that help absorb UVA rays, too. Some of those ingredients include benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789).

In March, the American Academy of Dermatology issued a statement reaffirming its position that sunscreen is beneficial in sun protection when used “regularly and properly and in conjunction with wearing protective clothing and seeking shade.”

“Scientific evidence supports the beneficial effects of proper sunscreen usage,” says Stephen P. Stone, a dermatologist and academy president, in the statement. “While it is an important tool in the fight against skin cancer, sunscreen alone does not protect you enough. People shouldn’t feel they can stay in the sun for extended periods of time.”

The academy reports on its Web site, , that 1 million new cases of skin cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year, and that there will be about 111,900 new cases of melanoma (a malignant tumor of the skin). The academy says older Caucasian men have the highest mortality rates from melanoma.

Speaking specifically about the lawsuit, some dermatologists don’t think it has merit. “I think the lawsuit is ill placed,” says Zoe D. Draelos, a High Point, N.C., dermatologist. “Sunscreens are much like car tires: You will get 40,000 miles if you drive straight on a smooth road, but in actuality no one drives in this manner. Sunscreens perform up to their SPF in the bottle as manufactured by the company but do not live up to their SPF when in actual use, since they are seldom applied in a thick enough film, which is usually disrupted by sweat and rubbing.”

Sunscreen is a “well-established element of a comprehensive sun protection program,” says David J. Leffell, senior associate dean for clinical activities and strategic planning and director of the Yale (University) Medical Group. In an e-mail response to Soundings, Leffell said boaters should rely on “experts in skin cancer” for advice regarding sun protection.