LIANE HANSEN, host:

Summer officially started this past week, and with hot days and outdoor vacations, it's peak season for the makers of sunscreen. However, before you slather yourself and head outside on this Sunday, here's a story about a series of lawsuits recently consolidated in sunny California. They charge the makers of sunscreen are not delivering all the protection that they promise.

More from NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Sandra Tellous(ph) and her granddaughters are getting ready to cool off at a neighborhood swimming pool in San Diego. Before the girls dive in, Tellous dabs on some SPF 30 sunscreen from a big bottle of Hawaiian Tropic.

Ms. SHANDRA TELLOUS (Sunscreen User): Yeah, we use sunscreen every time we go swimming. Now, prevention is better than cure, to have to deal with a sunburn afterwards. It's a lot better to use that sunscreen ahead of time).

HORSLEY: The label on the bottle promises waterproof, all day sun block, claims that are now being challenged in a lawsuit in California.

Attorney Michael Twersky is suing the makers of Hawaiian Tropic and other popular brands on behalf of sunscreen customers whom he says have been mislead.

Mr. MICHAEL TWERSKY (Attorney): They've been give a false sense from these labels and advertising, they could put some of this stuff on their kids in the morning, send their kids out to play splashing around in a pool, and they're fully protected for a full day's activity. And it's simply not true.

HORSLEY: Twersky argues that despite what the labels say, sunscreen is not waterproof, and it doesn't last all day. What's more, even though the label promises protection against two kinds of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB, he says the protection against UVA radiation is much weaker. In fact, he claims one of the ingredients commonly used to block UVA actually breaks down quickly once it's exposed to sunlight.

UVA does not cause sunburn like UVB, but it's still dangerous and contributes over the long term to melanoma, the potentially deadly form of skin cancer. Dr. Stephen Stone, who heads the American Academy of Dermatology, says unfortunately there's no SPF style measurement of protection against UVA.

Dr. STEPHEN STONE (President, American Academy of Dermatology): Part of the problem is that UVB blocking is obvious. You know, you and I will know whether our sunscreen is blocking UVB if we go out to the beach and we don't get burned, whereas it's hard to tell subjectively how much of the UVA is being blocked out by our sunscreen.

HORSLEY: The number of melanoma cases has been on the rise. Attorney Twersky suggests sunscreen may be having a perverse effect, allowing unwitting users to spend too much time in the sun.

Mr. TWERSKY: Before the use of sunscreen was prevalent, people knew to get out of the sun because they knew that they would get burned. And that burning is the body's natural warning system. It's time to get out of the sun.

HORSLEY: The company behind Coppertone sunscreen says Twersky's claims are without merit. Schering-Plough says it tells customers sunscreen should be used along with other measures, such as wearing protective clothing and limiting their time in the sun. Schering-Plough declined to talk on tape, but like other companies named in the lawsuit, it says its product labels comply with regulations of the FDA.

In 1999, the FDA proposed tighter regulations that would have outlawed terms such as waterproof, all-day protection, and sun block. But the industry lobbied successfully to keep that rule from taking effect. Newsday reported last year that the lobbying effort included attorney John Roberts, who's now Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The FDA says it's working to publish a new rule very soon that would include a standard for measuring UVA protection. Dr. Stone says, as a dermatologist, he'd like that.

Dr. STONE: Either the FDA or industry is going to have to come up with some absolute definitions of these terms.

HORSLEY: In the meantime, Stone recommends applying and reapplying sunscreen liberally, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and staying out of the sun during the middle of the day.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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