Why the US doesn't have sunscreens as effective as those in Europe and Asia

When dermatologist Adewole Ade Adamson, who lives in Texas, sees people spraying sunscreen like cologne in the pool and can't help but intervene. “My wife says she shouldn't,” he said, “even though most people rarely use enough sunscreen.”

In addition to this, another important problem that worries experts is the ingredients of sunscreens.

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ability to approve chemical filters in sunscreens sold in countries such as Japan, South Korea and France is hampered by a 1938 U.S. law that requires sunscreens to be tested. in animals and be classified as medicines, rather than cosmetics, as they are in much of the world.

So Americans aren't likely to get those best sunscreens—which block ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer and accelerate wrinkles—in time for this summer, or even next.

The challenges of the US market

Sunscreen makers say that requirement is unfair because companies such as BASF Corp. and L'Oréal, which make the new sunscreens, submitted safety data on sunscreens to European Union authorities about 20 years ago.

Steven Goldberg, a former vice president at BASF, said companies are wary of the FDA process because of the cost and their fear that additional testing on animals could provoke a backlash from consumers in the European Union, which bans cosmetic testing. in animals, including sunscreen. Companies are asking Congress to change testing requirements before taking steps to enter the U.S. market.

In a rare moment of political unity last summer, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) thanked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for urging the FDA to speed up approval of new sunscreen ingredients and more effective.

Now pending in the House is a bipartisan bill that would require the FDA to allow non-animal testing.

“This has to do with sunscreens being classified as over-the-counter medications,” explained Carl D'Ruiz, senior manager at DSM-Firmenich, a Swiss-based manufacturer of sunscreen chemicals. “It's really about giving the American consumer something that the rest of the world has. People aren't dying to wear sunscreen. “He is dying of melanoma.”

The most common cancer in the US

At least two people die from skin cancer every hour in the United States. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the country, where 6.1 million adults are treated each year for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The country's second most common cancer, breast cancer, is diagnosed about 300,000 times a year, although it is much deadlier.

Although success rates for skin cancer treatment are excellent, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer before age 70. The disease costs the health care system $8.9 billion a year, according to the CDC.

One study found that the annual cost of skin cancer treatment in the United States doubled between 2002 and 2011, while the average annual cost for all other types of cancer increased only 25%. And unlike many other types of cancer, most forms of skin cancer are largely preventable through the use of sunscreen and other precautions.

But a lot of misinformation has permeated the sunscreen debate, with some people questioning the safety of sunscreens sold in the United States, which they call “chemical” sunscreens. These critics prefer “physical” or “mineral” sunscreens, such as zinc oxide, even though All sunscreen ingredients are chemicals.

“It's an artificial categorization,” said E. Dennis Bashaw, a retired FDA official who headed the agency's clinical pharmacology division that studies sunscreens.

Still, these concerns were fueled in part by the FDA itself, after the federal agency released a study that said traces of some sunscreen ingredients had been found in the human bloodstream.

When the FDA said in 2019, and then two years later, that older sunscreen ingredients needed to be studied further to see if they were safe, sunscreen opponents saw an opportunity, said Nadim Shaath, president of Alpha Research & Development, which imports chemicals used in cosmetics.

“That's why we have extremist groups and people who are not well informed and think that anything that penetrates the skin is the end of the world,” Shaath said. “Everything you put on your skin or eat is absorbed.”

The danger of ultraviolet rays

Adamson, the Texas dermatologist, said some sunscreen ingredients have been used for 30 years with no evidence that they have harmed anyone.

“The problem for me is not the safety of the sunscreens we have,” he said. “The problem is that some of the chemical sunscreens are not as broad spectrum as they could be, meaning they don't block UVA rays either. This could change if the FDA allowed new ingredients.”

Ultraviolet radiation lies between X-rays and visible light on the electromagnetic spectrum. Most of the UV rays that people come into contact with are UVA rays that can penetrate the middle layer of the skin and cause up to 90% of skin aging, along with a lower amount of UVB rays that are responsible for sunburn.

The Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, rating on American sunscreen bottles denotes only a sunscreen's ability to block UVB rays. Although American sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” should, in theory, block UVA light, some studies have shown that they do not meet the European Union's highest UVA blocking standards.

“It appears that a number of these newer chemicals have a better safety profile, as well as better UVA protection,” said David Andrews, deputy director of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that researches ingredients in chemicals. consumer products. “We have asked the FDA to consider allowing market access.”

The FDA's Position

The FDA defends its review process and its call for testing of sunscreens sold in American stores as a way to ensure the safety of products that many people use every day.

“Today, many Americans rely on sunscreens as a key part of their skin cancer prevention strategy, making satisfactory evidence of the safety and effectiveness of these products critical to public health,” he wrote in an email Cherie Duvall-Jones, FDA spokesperson.

D'Ruiz's company, DSM-Firmenich, is the only one currently seeking approval in the United States for a new over-the-counter sunscreen ingredient. The company has spent the last 20 years trying to get approval for bemotrizinol, a process that D'Ruiz said has cost $18 million and has moved slowly, despite congressional attempts in 2014 and 2020 to speed up approvals. requests for new UV filters.

Bemotrizinol is the main ingredient in almost all European and Asian sunscreens, including those from the South Korean brand Beauty of Joseon and Bioré, a Japanese brand.

D'Ruiz said bemotrizinol could win FDA approval by the end of 2025. If it does, he said, bemotrizinol would be the most vetted and safest sunscreen ingredient on the market, surpassing even the safety profiles of zinc oxide. and titanium dioxide.

While Congress and the FDA debate, many Americans have decided to import their own sunscreens from Asia or Europe, despite the risk of buying fake products.

“The sunscreen issue has made people realize the dangers of moving slowly,” said Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University. “The FDA is incredibly slow. They've been looking at this for literally 40 years. Congress has ordered them to do it and they still haven't done it.”