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The Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) has found itself at the centre of growing controversy following media reports of the organisation endorsing sub-standard sunscreens which do not give adequate protection against the sun.
The organisation tested a sample of sunscreen products, including some it endorsed with the Cansa logo, against a standard similar to the one that is to be implemented in SA from March next year. This follows research which revealed that UVA light was more dangerous than first believed.
The new standard includes that sunscreen must offer more protection against UVA than previously required.
In the tests, some of the sunscreens were found not to fulfil the new standard. Among the tests were some major brands, including some manufactured in eThekwini.
Cansa said it was not able to name the specific products concerned due to “contractual obligations” with the laboratory that made the findings.
In numerous cases, the test results revealed that some products were “not optimal in providing protection from UVA rays”.
Dr Carl Albrecht, head of research at Cansa, confirmed that not only did the organisation endorse the products, but they also signed a confidentiality clause with the laboratory that carried out the tests. In terms of the agreement, Cansa is barred from publishing the results of the product tests they commissioned.
According to a noseweek report in its August edition, the laboratory that did the tests was Future Cosmetics, who it reported insisted on the restraining clause because some manufacturers whose products were to be tested were their clients.
Future Cosmetics did not want to alienate their clients and lose out on business should the shortcomings of their clients’ products be made public by Cansa.
Albrecht said Cansa had no choice but to sign the clause.
“It was a choice of something or nothing. No signature, no testing. [There is] no other place to do testing in South Africa,” Albrecht said.
To walk away with no tests, he said, would have been irresponsible because no one else was carrying them out. However, Cansa was not entirely comfortable with the idea of not publishing the results of the tests.
“Withholding results cuts against the grain. But the results will be used for one-on-one interaction with the [sunscreen] manufacturers, as they need to be convinced to reformulate, because presently there is no law forcing this,” he said.
“All manufacturers have been informed that sunscreens must be adequate by the end of March 2013, or forfeit Cansa endorsement.”
Cansa told Independent Newspapers that, since 2005, all sunscreens with the Cansa Seal of Recognition had to give protection against UVA and UVB radiation in a ratio of 0.4/1 – which was ideal.
Cansa claimed that recent research, however, had found an increased correlation between UVA exposure and the onset of malignant melanoma or skin cancer, as well as non-optimal UVA protection provided by existing sunscreens.
This was calculated in terms of the total UVA radiation spectrum and the photo stability of many critical sunscreen chemicals.
This has led to a worldwide demand for sunscreens with improved UVA protection properties.
The new research prompted the development of an International Standard for UVA protection in sunscreen products.
In the response that Cansa gave noseweek, they said that, while the SA Bureau of Standards developed standards for sunscreen in SA, the industry remained self-regulatory, with no one enforcing the law.
Cansa could not force sunscreen manufacturers to increase the UVA-absorbing capacity of their products, they said. It had also been their preferred practice to engage directly with the industry (as well as the Department of Health) regarding any concerns about products or service issues identified by their research findings.
“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.
“Unfortunately, due to contractual constraints, we have not been in a position to make any information regarding our cancer sunscreen test results public,” the organisation told noseweek.
Editor of noseweek Martin Welz said no matter what the cost, the public had the right to know.
“It does not help hiding this from the public. It may cost a lot of money, but do we want to put lives at risk?” he asked.
While the publication had not seen of the complete sunscreen test report provided to Cansa, it had been able to establish that the sunscreens produced by Creighton Products at its factory in New Germany, KwaZulu-Natal, feature prominently on the confidential list of products found wanting in tests commissioned by Cansa.
The magazine said that in addition to manufacturing products under its own brand name, Island Tribe, the company supplied house-branded products specially packaged for various major chain stores, including Spar, Clicks, DisChem, Pick n Pay and Mr Price.
The company’s marketing director, Mike Arthur, told noseweek 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.
“The test results were obtained through the Sans 1557 [and] enable us to qualify for the Boots star rating.”
Boots, the largest chain of pharmacies in the UK, developed a 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, while five-star products have 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 of the level of UVA protection and of the stability of the product itself when exposed to sunlight for some time.