Sunscreen labelling system 'poses cancer risk'

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The Independent Online

People may be risking skin cancer because of confusing or inaccurate information on sun lotions. The European Commission said labelling guidelines should be reviewed and called on sunscreen makers to avoid vague or misleading advice, or face the prospect of new, legally binding rules.

Among the labels judged unacceptable are those that give the impression of total protection - such as "sunblocker" or "total protection" - and those that use unclear or imprecise terminology such as "broad spectrum", "strengthened protection UVA" and "100 per cent anti-UVA/UVB/IR".

The commission suggests four new categories of product - low, medium, high, and very high protection - which would have to satisfy specific criteria.

A central concern is the widespread confusion over the two types of hazardous ultra-violet radiation from which people need protection. UVB causes sunburn, and UVA is responsible for premature skin ageing, increases the possibility of skin cancer and interferes with the immune system.

The best-known means of ranking sun products, the "sun protection factor" (SPF) helps protect against only UVB sunburn radiation and not the more harmful UVA. That means people who think they are using "high factor" sun lotion may be protecting themselves insufficiently against dangerous radiation. A commission spokesman said: "Just because you slap on a sunscreen with a high SPF doesn't mean you're fully protected."

Some tanning products do act against both sorts of rays but that may be unclear from labels.

The commission says: "It is important to know that an SPF over 50 practically does not increase the protection against sun burn and UVB radiation. Rather, if a product is applied correctly an SPF of 15 to 25 suffices to protect a person with normal skin from sunburn." The commission wants standardised labelling of UVA protection based on testing standards similar to those for UVB. Under its plan, four categories of sun products would be based on the strength of UVB protection but all products would have some protection against UVA. And UVA protection would have to be at least one-third of the strength of the UVB factor.

The commission said it would consult industry and consumers and hopes to see a more standardised and simpler system in place by next summer. Labels should have clear and comprehensible warnings and instructions on how to use a sunscreen properly.

Günther Verheugen, the commission vice-president with responsibility for industry and enterprise, warned: "The situation is untenable. The best way forward is a recommendation in which industry commits to label sunscreen products openly. This will give consumers clear and coherent information without creating unnecessary red tape for industry." Markos Kyprianou, the European health commissioner, added: "Consumers must be made fully aware that no sunscreen product can provide 100 per cent protection against hazardous UV-radiation. There are serious health risks such as skin cancer linked to insufficient protection from the sun." A British official said: "We do need to do more to make sure people are aware of their exposure to the sun and what different products do but we will want more information on what is proposed."

The EU sunscreen market was valued at €1.3bn (£891m) in 2004 in retail sales, rising in 2005 by about 4 per cent. European firms dominate the marketplace. Among the top 10 suppliers in the EU there are only three non-European companies whose market share amounts to roughly 12 per cent.