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Proposed Class-Action Suit Alleges Sunscreen Makers Deceived Public

A Toronto law firm is moving forward with a proposed class-action lawsuit against the makers of two major brands of sunscreen in Canada, alleging they deceived customers about the strength of their products.

Juroviesky and Ricci LLP said in two statements of claim that Schering-Plough Canada and Playtex Products Inc., which manufacture the Coppertone and Banana Boat sunscreen brands, made “misleading representations to the public” by implying the sun protection factor, or SPF, listed on their products protects equally against all types of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

In the amended statements of claim filed in February 2009 with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the firm said the companies failed to distinguish between UVA rays, which damage the DNA in skin cells, and UVB rays, which cause sunburns and are the main target of SPF ratings.

“That, we say, is misleading, deceptive and something for which the public needs to seek redress,” lawyer Henry Juroviesky said in an interview Friday.

While both UVA and UVB rays are carcinogenic, UVA rays cause “more aggressive” forms of skin cancer, the firm said in their statements.

The firm’s claim alleges sunbathers who purchased the two companies’ products may “unnecessarily expose themselves to harmful UVA rays without the benefit of their skin’s natural warning system, a sunburn.”

The allegations have not yet been proven in court, and the two companies have not yet taken the opportunity to defend themselves.

Schering-Plough Canada spokesman Kent Hovey-Smith said the company could not comment on the proposed class action, and would not say whether the firm had filed a statement of defence.

Calls to Playtex seeking comment were not returned.

While the statement of claim was filed in 2008, a motion to certify the lawsuit will take place in the next 60 days, Juroviesky said.

Juroviesky and Ricci LLP is encouraging anyone who purchased Coppertone or Banana Boat products after July 2002 to take part in the class action.

The lead plaintiff in the case, said Juroviesky, is a Toronto man who was diagnosed with skin cancer 12 years ago and became a “religious” sunscreen user after his diagnosis.

Juroviesky said Canadian consumers deserve compensation for claims that were “false, misleading (or) deceptive.”

“I just need to show that a reasonable person would think that sunscreen protects them from UVA at the same level of strength as UVB by looking at the label.”

The science behind the manufacturing of sunscreens has changed over the decades, said James Rivers, a clinical dermatology professor at the University of British Columbia and a regional director of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s sun awareness program.

He said there are now ingredients that protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Sunscreens with an SPF greater than 10 automatically contain ingredients that protect against UVA rays, said Rivers.

But the amount of UVA protection a sunscreen offers isn’t linked to its SPF number – so a high SPF sunscreen might better shield people from sunburns, but not necessarily against UVA, Rivers said.

That confusion could change, said Rivers, if Canada were to adopt a system proposed in 2007 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Under that system – yet to be implemented south of the border – the level of UVA protection would be measured by a four-star rating on sunscreen packaging.

“I assume that Canada, as we usually do, will follow suit,” said Rivers.