Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Has the Daily Mail gone too far?

The Daily Mail's ongoing mission to boldly assign everything we eat or drink into the categories 'causes cancer' or 'cures cancer' is a cause of much amusement, but essentially harmless. However, its latest magnificent misunderstanding when it comes to science could actually cause serious harm.

A couple of days ago a Mail travel reporter (note they didn't let their science person, if they have one, anywhere near it) gave us the striking headline shown above (spot the typo). You will note there is no suggestion that there is no known scientific reason why this stuff should work - we are told straight 'just a teaspoon will offer three hours' protection' and apparently with a straight face that it causes your skin to vibrate and cancel out ultraviolet light.

The article goes on to explain that the liquid sunscreen, retailing at £17 a bottle, works, according to its manufacturer, as follows: 'If 2 mls are ingested an hour before sun exposure, the frequencies that have been imprinted on water will vibrate on your skin in such a way as to cancel approximately 97% of the UVA and UVB rays before they even hit your skin... This is similar to the amount of UV reflection created by SPF 30 titanium/zinc sunblocks but distinctly better than UVB chemical sunscreens which prevent certain damage that leads to the visible/painful/inflammation reaction we identify as sun damage.'

The article also reproduces testimonials from users including 'My year and a half year old drinks it as well and hasn't burned once this summer and is out everyday!'

The suggestion seems to be that somehow the frequencies ‘imprinted on the liquid’ can cancel out light the way noise-cancelling headphones cancel out noise. If this were possible, the military would be rushing out to buy this product for their planes as ‘cancelling out light’ would make them invisible. But in fact light is nothing like sound – you can’t cancel it out with a vibration, even if something you drink could make your skin vibrate with a particular frequency – which it can’t.

The real concern is that people will use this product and then undertake dangerous levels of sun exposure – and a particular concern is that such a simple apparent solution would be ideal for children. There’s no worse job when arriving on a beach than having to coat your children in sunscreen. Imagine how attractive the idea is of just being able to give them a drink and they are protected. But should parents do this, they will be exposing delicate skin to the sun’s rays without protection, which can result in very serious outcomes.

Of course scientists are coming up with new treatments and products all the time – but when the description of how a product works is one that bears no resemblance to known science, when the product has not been tested by any authorities for safety, and when the result of it not working could have very serious health implications, it was extremely irresponsible of a newspaper to cover it in this way.

The Mail does provide a few provisos:

  • The company's claims have not been approved by the US FDA - but there is no suggestion that they never will be
  • A representative of the British Skin Foundation is quoted as saying they 'advise extreme caution of any product claiming UV protection using methods not supported by clinical research' and emphasising it is important to stick to tried and tested methods when protecting children's skin - which is all good stuff, but hardly the kind of warning that is necessary
When it comes down to it, all the editorial in the piece, apart from the remark about the FDA, is positive and reads more like a press release than an article. There is no suggestion that the advertised basis does not make scientific sense. There is no warning from the Mail about the consequences of relying on this product. Frankly, this article is very disturbing indeed.

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