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Need to shine a better light on after-sun products

A New Frontier in Sun Protection

Our Review Summary

sun umbrellaDrawing on concerns raised earlier this year by a study that found sun damage to skin continues even after exposure to the sun has stopped, this article cites several products that it says may help limit the damage, but it offers scant evidence to support their use.

The article takes a consumer’s guide approach to address the potential impact of post-sun exposure skin care. It is an interesting, under-explored area but the primary evidence is anecdotal from those selling the products they tout as beneficial.

Reader comments left on the newspaper website were not flattering:

  • This article is not a thorough coverage of well known remedies for sun burn. It is clearly a paid advertisement thinly disguised as reporting.
  • people have to realize you can make any claim you want with these things, you don’t have to prove it.
  • Is this an infomercial? Where is the evidence? Please explain the mechanism by which this glop enters skin cells – for that matter, prove that it does!
  • This is a commercial of products which are intended for health protection but were never clinically tested.


Why This Matters

The incidence of skin cancers has been increasing in recent decades, according to the World Health Organization, with 2 million to 3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers expected to occur this year. That incidence is expected to continue to rise. If using a protective skin product after exposure to the sun could cut one’s skin cancer risk, that might be useful information to many people. What’s more, Americans spend billions of dollars each year on skin care products, so aside from the vital health questions, readers deserve to know whether they are getting what they are paying for.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The story mentions the costs of the products it cites.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story says that “Product formulators are now seeing after-sun care as another line of defense to stop cell mutations and aging in its tracks.” But the story does not cite evidence to show whether their products do that.

In the accompanying video, the reporter is more blunt about the uncertainty:

“We don’t really know how long it takes for antioxidants to act on the skin,” says the reporter, who then cites several products. “They feel great and they smell great and they feel good on your skin after it’s been sun-parched. As to whether it’s helped my skin defend itself from the sun, it’s too soon to say. I’ve only been using them for a couple of weeks, but I think it’s worth a try.”

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made of any possible harms that could be caused by any of the products cited (including the potential harm of paying for something that doesn’t work).

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The evidence supporting the use of after-sun products was not spelled out by the story, though it allows company representatives to tout their products’ putative benefits.

Those putative benefits are not universally accepted. “The key question is, if you spray antioxidants on the skin, do they get to where the cells are?” asked Douglas E. Brash, a senior research scientist in therapeutic radiology and in dermatology at Yale, whose work was cited in the story and who spoke with in a telephone interview.

“I have mixed feelings about whether just spraying antioxidants on the skin is good. It could be great, but I just haven’t seen any evidence showing it.”

He said the story struck him as “kind of like a glorified advertisement.”

Brash further questioned the value of including a reference to Terrence Collins, the professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University who is not quoted. “He’s a chemist; not a photo biologist. He works on enzymes that clean up pollution. Yeah, it’s great that she’s manufacturing her stuff according to green chemistry, but that says nothing about whether this helps your skin.”

Collins did not respond to a phone call or an email.

“My gut reaction is I don’t think any of this will poison you and it might actually do some good but I wish somebody would show some evidence that it would do some good,” said Brash, who noted that he is not a physician.

The Yale researcher said the quotes in the story from the proponents of after-sun products were consistent with what he sees as the cosmetics industry’s practice of making no outright claims of efficacy in order to avoid scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration. “This article is kind of like that,” he said.

The story urges sun worshipers to “be aware that some labels only add a trace, ineffective amount of a beneficial ingredient to a product in order to tout its effects on the label, while others have a bona fide antioxidant slant.”

But the story does not tell readers how to find out whether a product contains more than a trace amount of “beneficial ingredient.”

“Unless you’re an organic chemist, it’s hard to figure out,” said Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University, who is interviewed in the video attached to the story and who spoke with in a telephone interview.

He described the work supporting the use of antioxidants as “preliminary,” adding that “they have some value, we just don’t know how much.”

Finally, the article describes one company as having an “Eco-Cert-certified lab, that creates mostly organic, botanical-based face and body treatments,” but does not say what an Eco-Cert-certified lab is or why it might be better than a non-Eco-Cert-certified lab. Nor does it say why “mostly organic” treatments would be better than non-organic treatments or worse than wholly organic treatments.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The article, which does not cite the toll caused by skin cancer, does not overplay the dangers of sun exposure, but it misses an opportunity to shed light on its growing incidence. The reference to Ms. Peterson “surviving melanoma” could be seen as overly dramatic, since most cases are detected early and treated by simply cutting out the skin growth in a doctor’s office.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Dermatologist Rand’s one-line caution — “there’s nothing you can do to reverse sun exposure” — is welcome, but does not suffice to balance the overwhelming weight of the rest of the story promoting the products.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Though the alternative — staying out of the sun — is mentioned, it is dismissed as unrealistic. “I’m on the phone with you from Hawaii and can see at least 40 people on the beach, soaking in the rays,” says the founder of True Nature Botanicals. “My kids are outside playing. I know that it’s not realistic to say ‘no sun.’ ”

It would have been interesting to have heard whether cancer researchers feel the same way about the futility of trying to limit their own children’s sun exposure.

The story could have at least made some reference to evidence about the reduction in cancer risk for people who consistently use sun block, limit their time in the sun, and use hats and other clothing that blocks UV light. Without that perspective, readers may be misled into believing that après sun treatments may offer comparable protection.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


It is clear that the products mentioned in the story are currently available. The photo caption includes links to manufacturer web sites.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The article identifies a number of after-sun products and notes that the marketing of these items is spurred in part by a research article published this year.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The article includes comments from independent experts so it does not appear to have relied solely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory


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