Sunscreen Warning Doesn't Hold WaterDateline: 07/08/98 (Updated: 09/04/98)
An email alert circulating since mid-June warns parents that waterproof sunscreen can cause blindness in children. The message purports to have been written by a parent who suffered this very calamity, but its author did not see fit to sign the warning, nor to provide verifiable evidence that any of its claims are true. Even before checking the facts, there's good reason to suspect that what you're about to read is an urban legend in the making:
Waterproof Sunscreen Warning
I wanted to tell you a story about a very serious thing. We still use sun screen on our whole family, but we are more cautious now. I tell you this only to make you more aware and use caution.
When Zack was 2 years old I put on the waterproof sun screen like I always had. I don't know how but he got some in his eyes. Most likely from his hands. It happens so easily at that age or any age really. He started screaming!! So I tried to flush it out with water. But guess what? Didn't matter...Remember *WATERPROOF.* So I just held him and let him cry, thinking the salty tears would flush it all out. But it got worse. I called the poison control center. They told me to RUSH Zack to ER NOW!! I was surprised. I got him there and they rushed me back without a second to spare. They started flushing his eyes out with special medications. Anyway, I found out for the first time that MANY kids each year lose their sight to waterproof sun screen. It burns the eye and they lose complete sight.!!! I was appalled. I could not believe the sun screen we use to help keep our kids safe from skin cancer can make them go blind!
Well I made a big stink about it. I wrote the sun screen company and they admitted to the problem but they said something to the fact that the seriousness of getting skin cancer is much worse then the chance of going blind. I think it's wrong if just one child goes blind! They should change ingredients or should at least have a huge warning on it. But they claim that if you put a huge warning on it then parents won't use it due to fear. I kind-of get that but there needs to be a change. We did this huge article in our big city and went on the news warning parents. Education along with the importance of using it. Well anyway Zack did go blind for 2 days, it was horrible. So please be careful!!! Don't stop using sun screen, just be very careful your children don't touch eyes for at least 15-20 minutes after you put it on!! And if your child does get it in his/her eyes then get to the emergency room at once!
And now for the facts:
In the U.S., the Food & Drug Administration has jurisdiction over the formulation and labeling of sunscreens, which are considered cosmetic products. My search of the FDA's online database turned up plenty of information about sunscreens, but nothing to indicate they can cause blindness in children. Nor could I find mention of any such incidents in press reports of the last two years.
A search of medical journals online produced no references connecting waterproof sunscreen with blindness in any age group. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association unhesitatingly recommends applying sunscreen to infants beginning at 6 months of age, with no concurrent warnings against the use of waterproof varieties.
I also called the Poison Control Center in my area and asked if they'd ever heard of any cases of children being blinded by waterproof sunscreens. The answer was: "No... except for that story on the Internet."
If, as the email states, "...MANY kids each year lose their sight to waterproof sun screen," federal law would require an appropriate warning label to be placed on the products, if not the withdrawal of FDA approval until said products were safely reformulated. That makes the following passage all the more implausible:
I wrote the sun screen company and they admitted to the problem but they said something to the fact that the seriousness of getting skin cancer is much worse then the chance of going blind. I think it's wrong if just one child goes blind! They should change ingredients or should at least have a huge warning on it. But they claim that if you put a huge warning on it then parents won't use it due to fear.
Note that the manufacturer goes conveniently unnamed, preventing us from authenticating these statements. It's implausible that a company would respond to such a serious customer complaint in this manner, especially in writing. Why would they admit to willfully withholding information about known hazards pertaining to the use of their product?
The email sounds an alarm and strikes fear into the hearts of parents without supplying a whit of substantiating evidence. If the message is sincere, why are so many useful details withheld? Why didn't the author see fit to sign it? It bears all the earmarks of a hoax whose only purpose is to frighten people. (Any verifiable evidence to the contrary is welcome, and will be published here.)
Rather than succumbing to fear of waterproof sunscreens, parents are advised to take reasonable precautions. Sunscreen products do tend to contain chemicals which can irritate the eye, as their labels typically state. Always read the manufacturers' directions and use the products as recommended. Should eye irritation result from the use of a waterproof sunscreen, the advised treatment is (ironic as it seems): flush with plenty of water.
- On July 23, the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System issued a press release which stated, in part:
No known link between sunscreen eye exposure and blindness:
In the past three weeks, the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System (NJPIES) which operates the New Jersey Poison Center Hotline and is located at the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, received calls from concerned citizens regarding the fear that getting sunscreen in the eye will cause blindness. Many of these calls have been from parents who are worried about using sunscreen on young children. According to Steven Marcus, MD, Executive Director of NJPIES, "There is nothing in the medical literature to support this association. We have searched for information to suggest a possible link, but have not found anything in our efforts." It appears that this misinformation has been transmitted via electronic mail on the Internet.
New Jersey Poison Information and Education System
201 Lyons Avenue
Newark, New Jersey 07112
- July 24 statement of Prevent Blindness America:
NEWS ALERT: PREVENT BLINDNESS AMERICA HAS RECEIVED MANY CALLS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF WATERPROOF SUNSCREEN PREPARATIONS TO THE EYES. THIS APPEARS TO BE AN URBAN MYTH, ACCORDING TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF OPHTHALMOLOGY.
- August 31 feature in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Email Myth: Sunscreen Won't Cause Blindness:
The American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington has received numerous calls and e-mails about the warning. Last month it alerted local poison control centers to the hoax.
Susan Gorman, assistant director of Georgia Poison Control, said she wasn't shocked to learn about the e-mail, but she was disappointed that people would believe it.
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