Safety concerns more than skin deep with consumer products like sunscreens

It probably should not have come as such a shock. But consumers are learning the hard way — notably through lawsuits in the civil justice system — that substances they slather on their skin don’t just stay there. They can move deeper into the body, causing bad things to happen.

Judges and juries have accepted the argument that this occurs with baby powder, with asbestos-tainted talc contributing over long periods of frequent application to claimants’ genital cancers. Plaintiffs have won sizable judgments, asserting their cancers were tied to extensive, sustained exposure to the chemical used in the weed killing product Roundup.

The federal Food and Drug Administration also has elevated seasonal public concerns with its spring announcement that agency researchers have found chemicals used in common sunscreens can migrate and can be found at detectable and unacceptably high levels in consumers’ blood. Further research will be needed, the FDA said, to determine whether this early finding is cause for major health concerns.

Meantime, consumers should know, the agency has emphasized, that sunscreens provide real and effective protection from damages caused by the sun’s rays. These injuries can be serious, and Americans have become familiar with skin cancer risks tied to exposure to the sun and tanning devices. Those cancer risks, for now, appear to be more significant and worth consumers weighing than what the FDA and other experts know about potential harms from sunscreens’ ingredients, officials have insisted.

But news and consumer safety organizations have provided informational alerts, including information on how Europeans already have stepped away from certain chemicals in sunscreens, thinking they heighten the products’ risks.

Much of the increased safety attention focuses, as Consumer Reports has said, on a dozen common sunscreen chemical active ingredients. These include oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene, CR reported, adding, “The FDA is not saying these ingredients are unsafe, nor is it recommending that you not use sunscreens that contain them.”

But the well-known consumer safety group says that “oxybenzone is potentially the most concerning. There is research to show that it may be absorbed through the skin more than previously thought. Studies in animals suggest that it may interfere with the function of hormones in the body, such as estrogen, and for this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that parents may want to consider using an oxybenzone-free sunscreen on their children. However, there’s currently no research to prove adverse effects of oxybenzone in people. Some research suggests that oxybenzone may be harmful to coral reefs.”

CR also noted that its recommended sunscreens contain oxybenzone, so, consumers, go figure. With the sun likely to beat on Washingtonians for times well beyond the sultry summer, and with skin cancers a heightened risk for the fair-haired and fair-skinned, it sure would be helpful to know more conclusively what to think and do about sunscreens. It will take time to do the research that is authoritative and clarifying, so all of us, meantime, may be participating in what may be a giant, public safety study.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products. It is difficult to watch the FDA wrestle with the challenges of overseeing sunscreens. They long ago were deemed to be over-the-counter medications to prevent skin damage, and, thus, already were subject to lesser federal oversight. But makers’ resistance to regulation and persistent concern about sunscreens’ chemicals led Congress to give the FDA new authority to step in. The recent agency revelations about sunscreen substances entering the blood resulted from tests that the FDA itself conducted because makers would not provide their data. Figuring the safety and effectiveness of components and sunscreens themselves may be a slog. That’s because it will be a challenge for medical scientists to consider the actions of each component, as well as their potential effect in combinations. The FDA also must wrestle with users, too — their age, activities while wearing the product (such as whether they go into water and whether they perspire heavily), and their frequency and aggressiveness in applying products.

The FDA, noting their use has increased significantly, with some applying them daily, has said it is studying not only the safety of sunscreens and their ingredients but also the levels of protection the products offer.

With doctors treating an estimated 3 million-plus cases of skin cancer annually, Americans should not forego sun protection. They may wish to cover up more, stick to sunscreens with ingredients now thought to be safer, and they may want to think hard about their notions that tans, and tanning enhance appearance. The price of seeking beauty can be steep — and folks may wish to think a lot about sacrificing their health for fleeting looks.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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