In its new report, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group says that 85 percent of sunscreens either inadequately protect from the sun's rays or contain ingredients that may be unsafe.
They say that the problem is worsened by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has not passed standards for testing and labeling sunscreens -- meaning that makers often have carte blanche when it comes to making claims about their products.
"There are all these things on the label that don't indicate quality, protection and safety," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG and manager of the project.
However, the group does recommend 142 sunscreen products for use by customers. While a similar report last year listed several recommended brands that were expensive and only available online, this year's report includes a list of the top 10 recommended brands that are widely available, including picks from CVS and Walgreens.
"Now you can walk down to the drugstore and pick one up," Lunder says.
The caveat is that only one of the 144 products sold by the top three sunscreen makers -- Coppertone, Neutrogena and Banana Boat -- made the list of recommended products.
Schering-Plough Corporation, which manufactures Coppertone products, rejects the report, saying that the company rigorously tests its sunscreen products for safety and effectiveness.
"Coppertone is committed to the science and safety of suncare and is concerned about the impact that reports like the one released by the Environmental Working Group will have on individuals who wish to protect themselves from the sun," said Schering-Plough spokesperson Julie Lux in a statement.
Shedding Light on Sunscreen
Researchers looked at the ingredients of 950 name-brand sunscreens for the report. They based their analysis on nearly 400 published studies and nearly 60 national databases containing information about possibly toxic chemicals.
With this information, they rated each sunscreen's overall effectiveness, based on three factors: ultraviolet-B (UVB) protection, indicated by the SPF rating; ultraviolet-A (UVA) protection against the other type of skin cancer-causing rays; and stability of the ingredients, or how long they remain active on the skin.
Dr. Seth Orlow, chairman of the dermatology department at New York University Medical Center, says the general public can make beneficial choices based on these findings.
"It would certainly seem that if someone picked one of the ones that was highly ranked, they would be getting good sun protection," he says. He adds that the worst that could happen is that the ratings could be conservative and cause consumers to be overly cautious.
Doctors say the report should not, however, lead consumers to believe that forgoing sunscreen might be better then wearing a sunscreen that could cause side effects, including allergic reactions.
"One of the things that's so important to remember is that sunscreens have been shown to be effective in preventing skin cancer," says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. "Not wearing sunscreen is not the appropriate takeaway message from this report."
Standards for Sunscreens
The fact that the FDA does not have standards in place to regulate testing or labeling -- even though it began considering such standards more than 30 years ago -- makes it difficult for consumers to make an educated decision.
"I think most of us look to the FDA to help us understand the potential risks and benefits of sunscreens," Lichtenfeld says.
A rule for the testing and labeling of sunscreens was proposed in 1999, but put on hold until the FDA could address the less-studied UVA rays as well as UVB rays.
In August 2007, the FDA offered a revised set of guidelines for sunscreen products, including the addition of a four-star rating system to indicate UVA protection, to go along with the SPF number that indicates the level of UVB protection.
The public has been given an opportunity to comment on the standards, which has resulted in more than 20,000 responses, according to FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle. The organization is now in the process of reading the comments and revising the guidelines as it sees fit.
"It's a very labor-intensive process, and it has been going on from the time the first comment came in," Chappelle says. "When that process has ended, we will move toward finalizing the standards."
She says that the science for analyzing UVA ray protection had not been in place until recently, which has slowed the process from the FDA's end.
"Now the science has caught up," she says, so the FDA is moving forward with the proposal.
"To make sure that the claims are valid, this new rule will require them to validate the level of UVA and UVB protection the product actually provides," Chappelle says. "These newly proposed rules will require companies to substantiate that level of protection."
This will include both laboratory testing with a sun-ray simulator and testing on humans, she says.
Buying and Applying Sunscreen
With no deadline for implementation of the proposed FDA standards in sight, experts say consumers can still follow simple guidelines to maintain sun safety.
These include avoiding the sun during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., protecting the skin with both sunscreen and clothing, and seeking shade from the sun, Lichtenfeld says.
In addition, Lunder says the EWG recommends that consumers purchase sunscreens that contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to protect against harmful UVA rays.
So even with the EWG's findings, Lunder says, "I would hope that a consumer would say that they are still buying these products and using them religiously."
However, Orlow says that old sunscreen just won't do.
"Last summer's sunscreen isn't good anymore, generally," he says.
Regarding application, sunscreens should be put on about 30 minutes before stepping outside and should be applied without clothes on, so as not to miss any spots that might be exposed to the sun, Orlow says.
Reapply frequently, he adds, because even waterproof and sweatproof sunscreens only last up to two hours.
Until more research looks at the effects of the chemicals in sunscreen, consumers should still trust that the protection against skin cancer outweighs any negatives of the products, Lichtenfeld says.
"For now, we do believe that the available sunscreens are still considered to be safe and effective if used," he says.