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Lawsuit: Sunscreens Offer False Promise of Protection

As beach season quickly approaches, a class action lawsuit is alleging that five of the leading U.S. makers of sunscreen lotions and sprays deceptively promote their products as protection from harmful sun rays.

But dermatologists tell WebMD that using sunscreen as a part of an overall sun-safety strategy still makes good sense.

Published reports suggest that the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to return money that consumers say they spent on these products. The suit names as defendants Schering-Plough (which makes Coppertone), Johnson & Johnson (which makes Neutrogena), Playtex Products (which makes Banana Boat), Tanning Research Labs (which makes Hawaiian Tropic), and Chattem (which makes BullFrog).

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Protection From Harmful Rays

The lawsuit claims the manufacturers promote sunbathing by claiming to protect users from harmful ultraviolet rays. It says while the products might protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays -- the shorter-length ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn and increases the risk of skin cancer -- they do little to stop ultraviolet A (UVA) rays -- longer-length rays reaching deeper into the skin, which can also increase the risk.

"We have not had an opportunity to review this lawsuit, but Schering-Plough has vigorously disputed these allegations in the past and our current labeling is in compliance [with FDA regulations]," says Denise Foy, spokeswoman for Schering-Plough.

When contacted by WebMD, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a trade group which represents some of the major sunscreen manufacturers, said they do not comment on lawsuits to which they are not a party.

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Are Sunscreens Waterproof?

Also at issue is the claim of some products to be waterproof. The class action suit alleges that the "waterproof" designation was deceptive because all sunscreen products lose their effectiveness when immersed in water.

And that’s something that dermatologists have known for a long time, saysBruce E. Katz, MD, the medical director of the JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York City. “A lot of sunscreens that claim to be waterproof really are not,” he says. “They may be water-resistant, but people still have to reapply sunscreen after swimming or perspiring after sports."

And the truth is there is not a reliable way to measure UVA, he says. “Sun protection factor (SPF) is really is a measure of UVB, not UVA, so that is definitely an issue. It’s more important to know what’s in a sunscreen. So look for one with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or parsol (avo-benzone) and then you know you have the best possible protection. You still need to reapply it every two to three hours and right after sweating or swimming.”

Other sun safety tips include avoiding sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (when the sun is the strongest) and wearing protective clothing, a hat with a wide rim, and sunglasses. “It’s not a good idea to rely solely on your sunscreen,” he says.

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Sun Safety

“I don’t know if there is any credence to this lawsuit,” says Roger Ceilley, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology.

“Sunscreen is an important part of sun safety, but it’s only a part of it," he says. WebMD spoke to Ceilley while he was hiking in Arizona, sporting sunscreen with an SPF of 55, a hat, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing.

“A number of studies clearly show the benefit of sunscreen when used properly. And you need to use an adequate amount,” he says, adding that most people don’t. “Apply a shot glass size to get adequate covering.”

And remember that “using sunscreen does not to allow you to bake in the sun,” he says. “The concern I have about this lawsuit getting a lot of publicity is that it gives people a reason not to engage in an inconvenient but healthy behavior. If you don’t use it, you will be a lot worse off then you were before."

Ariel Ostad, MD, a dermatologic surgeon and assistant clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, sums it up this way: “One cannot assume that because you are putting on sunscreen you can lay in the sun for hours and be totally protected. Use your judgment -- sunscreen doesn't protect you 100 percent while bathing in the sun. You should sit in the shade.”

By Denise Mann, MS, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Bruce E. Katz, MD, medical director, JUVA Skin and Laser Center, New York City. Roger Ceilley, MD, clinical professor of dermatology, University of Iowa, Iowa City; spokesman, American Academy of Dermatology. Ariel Ostad, MD, dermatologic surgeon, assistant clinical professor, New York University School of Medicine, New York City. Denise Foy, spokeswoman, Schering-Plough.