Is your sunblock really saving your skin?

MONROE – As manager of Valley General Hospital’s emergency room, Claudia Walters knows the precautions to take before being exposed to the sun.

“I’m a fanatic about sunscreen,” she said. When her two grandchildren went to Flowing Lake recently to get some relief from a hot summer day, they were slathered in lotion with an SPF 50 rating to protect them against sunburn.

The sunscreen was reapplied every time the kids got out of the water, at least three times, she said.

Even so, Adam Walters, 8, and Chloe Walters, 2, “got just beet red,” she said. “They both look like snakes shedding their skins right now.”

Like many other consumers, Walters thought she was doing the right thing by buying a sunscreen lotion with a high SPF rating.

A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group of 785 sunscreens found that only 17 percent were safe and effective. The rest vary widely in their ability to protect skin from the sun’s harmful rays.

The study is part of a national movement calling on the federal Food and Drug Administration to better regulate the claims made by sunscreen manufacturers.

Last year, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said current regulations fail to prevent false and misleading claims, giving consumers a false sense of security. These include boasts that sunscreens block “all harmful rays,” provide all-day protection and are waterproof.

As one example, the extra protection provided by products with a 30-plus SPF rating is insignificant, he said.

In late May, he sent a petition to the federal agency calling for action, but no steps have been taken, said his spokeswoman, Tara Stapleton. The agency has been considering changes since 1999.

Meanwhile, Walters and other consumers are left struggling to make informed decisions when faced with a vast array of sunscreen products.

“It’s just a wee bit of sensory overload,” she said. “Everybody makes all these claims.

“There’s no sample bottles; you don’t get to try it on and go out in the sun and see if it works.”

Spreading the word on sun safety is a challenge in Western Washington, where cloudy skies and rainy weather dominate weather patterns.

“We spend so much time in the dark, as soon as the cloud cover goes away, everyone dives into the outdoors, but they forget that sun is not necessarily healthy,” said Dr. Karin Harp, a dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon at The Everett Clinic.

“Just because you were born and raised in Washington doesn’t mean you won’t get skin cancer,” she said.

In fact, Washington ranks in the top 25 percent of states with people diagnosed with melanoma, or most serious form of skin cancer. That’s even higher than Sun Belt states such as Florida and California.

Washington’s high skin cancer rates could in part be caused by the large number of people with Scandinavian roots. Or it could be because people in Western Washington start off the summer with very pale skin and are easily burned, said Dr. Andrew Shors, a Group Health dermatologist.

The SPF ratings refer to a sunscreen’s ability to block one type of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, UVB, which can cause sunburn.

However, UVA, a second type of ultraviolet light, penetrates deeper into the skin and causes skin damage, suppressing the immune system and sometimes causing cancer.

UVA can penetrate car windows and deep cloud cover, which is why protection from the sun is a year-round issue, Harp said.

Sunscreens labeled as having “broad spectrum” protection help block both types of damaging sunlight.

Although many sunscreens now include ingredients that block UVA rays, too, it’s hard to determine how strong the protection is, or just how well any product does its job, Shors said.

“The FDA is way behind in regulation of sunscreen,” as well as providing a useful classification system of its UVA-blocking qualities, he said.

That’s why the Environmental Working Group’s efforts to analyze and rate products “is laudable,” Shors said.

The results, available online, give some of its best marks to products such as Badger SPF 30 and UV Natural Sport SPF 30+.

However, the study has received some criticism for basing its findings on an analysis of databases and 400 studies. “Their conclusions may not be applicable to real-life use,” Shors said.

The American Academy of Dermatology recently began awarding its “Seal of Recognition” to Aveeno sunblock products. The group based this rating on factors including the products’ broad-spectrum protection, lasting power and water resistance.

Even the best products, though, can give consumers a false sense of security, said Dr. Dan Berg, director of dermatology surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Sunscreen is an imperfect tool for avoiding ultraviolet light, the cause of skin cancer, wrinkles, lines and blotches, he said.

When going outside, Berg said he tries to find shaded areas to provide a break from the sun and wears hats with a broad brim and flap to protect his face and neck.

“Sunscreen can mislead you into thinking you’re doing something safe,” he said. People tend to “stay out much longer than they otherwise would have.”

One other problem with sunscreens is that most people use far less – only about one quarter of the amount – that they need for good protection, Harp said.

“We’re going to diagnose more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer in the United States this year,” she said.

The risk of skin cancer depends on the amount of sun exposure you receive during your whole life, not just the amount of sun time you get as a kid, she said.

“It all counts,” Harp said. “When you decide to protect you skin, it does add up to reducing your chances of skin cancer. It’s important to protect yourself throughout your whole life.”

Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

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