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Article from the August 2012 issue of Noseweek Magazine.
Alarming test results hushed up to protect manufacturers
Tests commissioned by the National Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) have indicated that most South African-manufactured sunscreen products are “not optimal” in providing protection from the UVA rays of the sun – once thought harmless but now known to cause melanoma, one of the most serious forms of skin cancer.
Many of these products bear the Cansa seal of recognition.
Cansa has had these disturbing test results since late last year, but has been unable to make the information public because the Pretoria laboratory that did the tests, Future Cosmetics, insists that the contents of its report be kept confidential.
The Western Cape is estimated to have the highest incidence of newly reported cases of melanoma in the world.
Noseweek put it to Heibrie le Roux, CEO of Future Cosmetics, that by withholding the information from the public, her company was potentially putting scores of lives at risk. She snapped: “I don’t have to talk to you!”
Noseweek pressed the point: “For the next summer, even two summers, people are going to be buying and using sunscreens on their children at the beach, at school sports events, confident they are providing the necessary protection. You know better, but won’t tell them?”
Her reply: “That’s how we do business with all our customers. It would not be ethical of me to give you any information about our research; you are not our customer.” She then terminated the call.
International standards kept secret while questionable local products remain on shelves
While not making the information public, Cansa has discreetly informed those local manufacturers and distributors found wanting in the tests, that they have one more summer season to clear out their existing stocks: as of March next year, they will have to upgrade the quality of their products to meet the so-called Colipa standard – already prescribed by the EU, if they wish to retain Cansa’s endorsement.
There is no law that forces the manufacturers and marketers of sunscreens (also called sunblocks) to comply with any standard, old or new. Cansa’s endorsement of some sunscreen products has been the public’s only guide – and public disclosure and negative market reaction its only remedy for non-compliance.
When Noseweek asked Cansa about the tests they had commissioned, and why the results had been withheld from the public, the association responded with the following statement:
“…As a non-profit company with no ulterior motives, Cansa has never been inclined to withhold information regarding health risk to the public. On the contrary, Cansa has always followed a policy of transparency and our research findings have always been published on our website and integrated into our health awareness promotional material.”
(Four years ago Cansa commissioned the CSIR to analyse 40 brands of margarine for fatty acids. The complete results, with brand names, were then placed on Cansa’s website as a public service. The action was widely acclaimed.)
The Cansa statement continued: “Unfortunately, due to contractual constraints, we have not been in a position to make any information regarding our cancer screen test results public.
“Cansa has, however, engaged with the relevant parties to ensure these supposed deficiencies are addressed as a matter of urgency in line with the EU standards as well as the more recent international standard, ISO 24443, published on 1 June 2012.”
It concludes by noting that “Cansa has no power to force sunscreen manufacturers to increase the UVA absorbing capacity of their products. The major sunscreen protection risk that will persist into the future relates to the many sunscreen brands – both local and imported — that do not even comply with past (let alone the latest) sunscreen standards.
“In the absence of any effective policing and/or enforcement authority, retailers continue to offer these products for sale – regardless of the health consequences.” (See following page for Cansa CEO Sue Janse van Rensburg’s more detailed account of events.)
By a simple process of elimination, Noseweek has established that the sunscreen tests were carried out by Future Cosmetics in Pretoria – one of only two laboratories in South Africa that undertake these tests.
Future Cosmetics insisted that Cansa sign a confidentiality clause before it released the results, preventing Cansa from publicly identifying the deficient products. The apparent reason: the same manufacturers are also Future Cosmetics’ clients – clients the lab does not want to alienate.
While Noseweek has not had sight of the complete sunscreen test report provided to Cansa, we have been able to establish that – not surprisingly, as it is the biggest supplier of suncare products in South Africa — the sunscreens produced by Creighton Products at its factory in New Germany in KwaZulu-Natal, feature large on the confidential list of products found wanting in tests commissioned by Cansa.
In addition to manufacturing products under its own brand name, Island Tribe, the company supplies house-branded products specially packaged for various major chainstores including Spar, Clicks, DisChem, Pick n Pay and Mr Price. Creighton’s website boasts that each of these house brands achieved a 10% market share in their respective stores in the first year of trading.
“The close working relationship with these companies and the experience we have with our brand Island Tribe assists us to read the market and develop products suited for each retailer,” Creighton’s website blurb declares.
But, somehow, while Creighton was “reading the market”, they were clearly not keeping up with the latest scientific research on the causes of skin cancer and the best means of prevention. The company’s marketing director, Mike Arthur, said the first they had known of the “Colipa standard” being promoted by Cansa, was in March this year when they were invited to a meeting where Cansa presented a paper on the subject.
“We have been made to look bad, but our current certificates, based on tests conducted by Medunsa’s laboratory – one of only two local laboratories that do these tests – rated our broad-spectrum ratios five-star. However, the Boots standard was used, not the Colipa standard now spoken of,” Arthur told Noseweek, adding “I would not know how reliable these tests are.”
Boots, the largest chain of pharmacies in the UK, developed a standard sunscreen testing method that has been adopted by most companies marketing these products in the UK: one-star products have the lowest ratio of UVA-to-UVB protection; five-star: the highest. The difference between the “old” Boots test and the latest Colipa test is the latter’s requirement that samples must be irradiated for some time before testing to give a better indication not only of the level of UVA protection, but also of the stability of the product itself when exposed to sunlight for some time.
The latest cancer research findings and product test results will, inevitably, lead to a demand for new – and more costly – manufacturing standards to be met in the shortest possible time. Arthur admits his company, Creighton, has its work cut out, just to meet the March 2013 deadline set by Cansa (if it wishes to retain Cansa’s endorsement of its products). Products must be reformulated with more expensive ingredients which are available only from major multinational suppliers, and then each must be re-tested – at a cost of R40,000 per test.
Even more pressing will be the immediate demand by informed consumers, once the word is out — and Noseweek readers are the first to know – for sunscreen products that provide the optimum protection from the melanoma-causing UVA rays of the sun.
Dr Dagmar Whitaker, Cape Town dermatologist and chairman of the Melanoma Society of SA, says the Western Cape has perhaps the highest incidence of malignant melanoma in the world (similar to that of Australia).
“To date we do not have accurate statistics, but the estimated figure for the Cape in 2009 was 69 new cases per year per population of 100,000 Caucasians. Australia has an incidence rate of 65 per 100,000. This translates to a prediction that 1 in 1,429 people will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma this year.
“Compare this with the figures for the years 1990-1995 and you find the incidence has trebled over the past 20 years. Clearly something needs to be done urgently to address the risk factors and reverse this trend.”
Using an effective, broad-spectrum sunscreen is one essential precaution.
Knowing which products are effective is obviously crucial to the exercise. Noseweek trusts that Cansa, Future Cosmetics, and the various sunscreen manufacturers will waste no more time in publicly identifying as many sunscreen products as possible that provide optimum protection from cancer-causing irradiation across the spectrum. At least before summer.
In the absence of that information, Noseweek can at least recommend that Nivea sunscreen comes up trumps.
Process in motion
From Cansa’s letter to Noseweek:
Science is a process in motion. Our knowledge about skin cancer, its causes and best prevention practice, protection methods and protective product requirements is no exception. For many years science has fingered the sun’s ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) as the main cause of skin cancer i.e. basal and squamous cell carcinoma — whilst malignant melanoma remained an enigma. The historical bias in research resulted in most solar radiation protective measures, for years, being focused on UVB – and standards were developed and enforced accordingly, the most recent being the international SPF (Solar UVB-radiation Protective Factor) standard ISO 24444.
More recent research has identified UVA — for years considered harmless and used to this day by legally permitted South African tanning salons on tanning beds – as co-culprit, leading to more stringent and broader protective requirements for sunscreens: now sunscreens should provide both UVB and UVA protection. The European Union countries were the leaders in this regard: the EU’s Colipa standard requires sunscreens to offer “Broad-spectrum (UVA & UVB) Protection”. [The UVA-protection of sunscreen has to be one-third of its claimed SPF (UVB) value, as determined by the Colipa test.]
…More recent research on the probable dangers of UVA, particularly in terms of ‘extreme’ (longer) UVA rays, placed most sunscreen standards under the spotlight once more. The South African national sunscreen standard SANS 1557:2009 is now considered insufficient, in that its specified broad-spectrum ratio does not offer adequate protection in terms of the UVA spectrum. In addition, some of the (cheaper) sunscreen chemicals used to achieve existing protection standards (locally and internationally) have proved to be lacking in protection against ‘extreme’ UVA radiation – and in many cases become photo-unstable [and ineffective] when exposed to these longer UVA radiation waves.”
In response to the recent UVA concerns and in an effort to glean an idea of the local sunscreen status quo, Cansa commissioned a testing project, conducted by a recognised independent local testing facility during the latter quarter of 2011, employing the EU’s Colipa standard. The sample of sunscreens tested included a mix of sunscreens comprised of local Seal-bearing and non Seal-bearing sunscreens and imported brands.
While only 35 products were tested (due to financial restraints as an NGO) it included individual samples from the sunscreen ranges produced by the three sunscreen category brand leaders and/or manufacturers, who collectively produced 87.2% of sunscreen sold locally during the 12 months up to March 2011 (Nielsen Consumer Research Statistics: July 2011)
The 35 products tested, however, offered only a glimpse of the overall picture, constituting less than 10% (i.e. 9.8%) of the 357 individual sunscreens sold locally by 58 manufacturers and/or distributors during the same period – hardly a representative percentage and inadequate a number to make sweeping public statements.
The aforementioned tested sample size plus the fact that sunscreen manufacturers and/or distributors were operating within the bounds of the law if their products conformed to the present legal standard i.e. SANS 1557:2009 (and not the Colipa standard against which they were tested); a contractual public disclosure restriction in the testing agreement compelled Cansa to refrain from any indiscriminate disclosure of the attained test results.
All negative test results were disclosed and discussed privately with the relevant Seal-bearing sunscreen manufacturers and/or distributors. Most have already been reformulating their respective brands. — Sue Janse van Rensburg, CEO: Cansa
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