March 30, 2006 -- A class-action lawsuit filed recently alleges that five manufacturers of sunscreen have made false and misleading claims about the cancer-protective benefits of the products.
The products, which include Coppertone, Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic, create a false sense of security that actually endangers people who use sunscreen, the suit states.
"Sunscreen is the snake oil of the 21st century, and these companies that market it are Fortune 500 snake oil salesmen," said Samuel Rudman, a lawyer with Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman and Robbins LLP, in a news release. "False claims such as 'sunblock' 'waterproof" and 'all-day protection' should be removed from these products immediately."
However, dermatologists -- the doctors who most commonly treat skin cancer --vehemently rebutted the suit's claims, saying that sunscreens were highly effective when used properly, but that they should always be used with other sun-smart behaviors like wearing a hat and avoiding sun exposure during peak daytime hours.
"Sunscreen is believed by most, if not all, dermatologists to be an effective means of reducing exposure to harmful ultraviolet light that can start the formation of skin cancers," said Murad Alam, a Northwestern University dermatologist.
There are three types of skin cancer -- basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The first two occur frequently among older people who are light-skinned but have spent a lot of time outdoors. Melanoma is the most serious but also a fairly rare cancer.
Sunscreens are ranked according to their sun-protection factor. Some sunscreens block only one form of harmful sunlight, ultraviolet B, while others block UVB and UVA-type light. The lawsuit said there was no standard to measure UVA protection.
The manufacturers named in the class-action suit include Schering-Plough, which makes Coppertone; Sun Pharmaceuticals and Playtex Products, which make Banana Boat; Tanning Research Laboratories, which makes Hawaiian Tropic; Neutrogena Corp. and Johnson & Johnson, which make Neutrogena; and Chattem Inc., which makes Bullfrog.
Denise Foy, a Schering-Plough spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the specifics of the suit because her company had not seen what had been filed. However, past lawsuits of a similar nature were vigorously disputed by Schering-Plough, she said.
"The labeling and advertising for all our products, including sun-care products, are developed in compliance with all applicable laws and FDA regulations," she said.
According to the news release, the suits also noted that the "waterproof" designation was deceptive because all sunscreen products lost their effectiveness when immersed in water.
Dermatologist Zoe Diana Draelos said that the lawsuit was "sadly misguided" and that consumers must be responsible for applying and using sunscreen according to the label's directions.
"Sunscreens perform as labeled in the bottle, but problems arise in actual consumer use," she said. "The sunscreen may not be applied evenly. It may be applied too thinly. It may be applied infrequently."
Alam of Northwestern said there were other important ways to reduce sunburn and skin cancer, too.
"Protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and sun avoidance during peak sunlight hours, usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., are also important," he said. "Just like a well-balanced breakfast can be an important part of a healthy diet, sunscreen can be an important part of a complete skin-cancer prevention strategy."