What’s new in choosing a safe sunscreen – and what’s not

By Rebecca Robinson

generic sunscreen

The latest news in choosing an effective, safe sunscreen is mostly about what’s not new.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had proposed several updates to sunscreen regulations in 2021 that would bring U.S. sunscreen options closer to what is available to residents in the European Union.

However, progress has stalled, as the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently detailed in its 2024 Sunscreen Guide.

“The rest of the world is light years ahead in sunscreen innovation, leaving American consumers behind…” said Homer Swei, EWG’s senior vice president of Healthy Living Science, in a news release.

“Companies have repeatedly ignored their responsibility to provide essential safety studies to the FDA. And with the FDA constantly shifting its deadlines, the industry is stuck in regulatory limbo, leaving consumers in the dark about the risks they might be taking.”

Fortunately, there’s still a lot consumers can do to choose an appropriate sunscreen – and ways to encourage updated regulations.

 

What to look for in a sunscreen

The EWG report recommended that shoppers:

  • Choose sunscreens that are mineral based (zinc oxide provides protection from UVA rays, a type of ultraviolet radiation implicated in some skin cancers.
  • Choose creams or liquid sunscreens (not spray).
  • Avoid any sun products with Vitamin A, due to concerns about its safety in that context (see this article for more details).
  • Be aware that Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings are unreliable to a certain extent, since they only measure one time of ultraviolet radiation protection known as UVB rays. Protection from UVA rays is also important.
  • Be aware that SPF ratings over 50 offer very little additional protection and SPF values between 30 and 50 are sufficient when used correctly.
  • Consider using EWG’s free guide to avoid sunscreens with other potentially harmful ingredients, online here.

 

Sunscreen ingredients and labels

One concern in the EWG report is sunscreens currently on the market that contain potentially harmful ingredients. Another pressing concern is the opposite — barriers to adding new and potentially useful ingredients.

FDA currently only considers two ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as safe and effective for use in sunscreens. (In 2021 it formally barred two others, PABA and trolamine salicylate, and deferred decisions on more than a dozen others, some of which other countries consider unsafe.)

The U.S. hasn’t added new “safe and effective” sunscreen ingredients since the 1990s, even though there have been major advances in our knowledge about sun damage since then and evidence that newer ingredients could provide stronger protections. The European Union already considers more than 30 ingredients safe and effective in its sunscreens, but the FDA is requiring safety data from U.S. tests before allowing their use.

We weren’t supposed to be stuck here. A 2014 federal law, the Sunscreen Innovation Act (SIA), was meant to modernize safe sunscreen guidelines. In 2021 the FDA made several recommendations for updates (see this Sound Consumer article for details) but has since said that new federal regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic have changed its course.

This change leaves the updates in limbo, including:

  • Recommendations to study those new ingredients to see if any can be added to U.S. sunscreens.
  • A recommendation to cap SPF ratings at no higher than 60 SPF, under the theory that higher ratings offer very little extra protection and make consumers overconfident about how long they can safely stay in the sun.
  • A proposal for additional safety studies for any spray or powder sunscreens, given concerns that they can increase the risk of lung damage, among other health concerns under review.

The EWG report noted that some individuals, frustrated, are importing sunscreens from other countries that contain ingredients not currently approved for U.S. sunscreens. This is technically illegal, the report noted, but the FDA may be flexible.

The delays are less significant for PCC shoppers. PCC standards are already far stricter than FDA requirements — PCC stores already do not carry products advertising greater than 50 SPF, and PCC does not carry aerosolized spray sunscreens.  All PCC sunscreen products are mineral based and do not contain retinol/Vitamin A. That said, the logjam in adding new ingredients that would be safe and effective affects its shoppers too.

 

Supporting better sunscreen regulations

What will make the situation change?

The regulatory process can be painfully slow. It can speed up when people speak up and demand change, helping legislators and government staff determine their priorities.

Although the official comment period for the proposed sunscreen regulations closed years ago, you can still contact your members of Congress and voice your opinion, especially if they are on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FDA.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has been a strong advocate on this issue, suggests asking your members of Congress to “break through some of the regulatory barriers at the FDA” and “fund public research so that we can all enjoy the filters that develop out of the scientific process.”  Find your Congressional representatives online here.

 

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