It's Settled: Heliotherapy ("Sun Therapy") Is a Health Risk

5/18/98

Charles Booras M.D.

by Charles H. Booras, MD


The recent settlement of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) case against a manufacturer of tanning products will help protect consumers. The settlement specifies that certain health claims for tanning products are prohibited, and that the product labels must include warnings about tanning.

Back in 1994, Sun & Skin News alerted the public about a line of tanning products that was being marketed as beneficial to health. To push its "Heliotherapy" ("sun therapy") tanning lotions, oils, and gels, California SunCare, Inc., had blitzed the media with messages touting "the positive effects of sun and UV (ultraviolet) light." The promotional materials included excerpts of research purporting to prove that tanning offers many physical and psychological benefits without increasing the risks of skin cancer and photoaging.

The materials also suggested that the company's tanning products helped protect against photoaging and skin cancer by preventing sunburn and overexposure, even though the products included no sunscreen. Skin cancer experts warned that this advertising was dangerously misleading, but the sales campaign continued in the same vein for years.

Finally, the FTC charged California SunCare, Inc., with "false and unsubstantiated claims that moderate exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun and indoor tanning salons is not harmful - indeed, provides many health benefits." The Commission alleged that the manufacturer lacked a reasonable basis for these claims, that its out-of-context study excerpts did not constitute proof, and that its claims about better tanning results with its products were unsubstantiated.

To avoid prosecution, the company reached a settlement with the FTC late last year, agreeing not only to eliminate certain health claims, but to disclose in future ads and labeling that suntanning or indoor tanning with or without burning can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging.

California SunCare, Inc., must spend $1.5 million disseminating these disclosures to consumers through brochures, magazine ads, and other media outlets. Thereafter, it must include similar disclosures in all ads and labeling for non-sunscreen tanning products which make health or safety claims. It must also substantiate any claims about the health benefits of UV or about the ability of non-sunscreen products to enhance tanning or minimize skin damage.

"False or unsupported claims about health and safety are of particular concern to the FTC," says Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "California SunCare, Inc.'s advertising claims directly contradicted the conclusion of scientists and public health officials that tanning, not just burning, can cause skin damage and skin cancers. The messages the company has agreed to disseminate will caution consumers about the potential harm caused by tanning."

For more information on prevention and early detection of skin cancer, call the Skin Cancer Foundation at 1-800-SKIN-490.


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