Skin cancer is a major problem in the U.S; between 1992 and 2004, melanoma rates grew by nearly half. But even while we're constantly upbraided to wear more sunscreen, the FDA has been slow to update its 30-year-old rules about the product. In the meantime, companies have been allowed to make all sorts of unverified claims about the efficacy of their products. But this week, the FDA announced new sunscreen regulations for next year that force companies to improve the accuracy of their sunscreen protection claims. How effective will they be? We talked to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that puts out its own annual sunscreen guide, to find out if the government got it right.
The FDA's rule: The final regulations establish a standard test for over-the-counter sunscreen products that will determine which products are allowed to be labeled as "Broad Spectrum." Products that pass this test will provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA).
EWG says: Currently, SPF only refers to ability to block UVB rays—so this will, at least, be a small step up from today's regulations. But the new rules aren't enough. "This is a big disappointment for us. They set the bar quite low," says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at EWG. Approximately 80% of today's sunscreens will pass the new test, but 20% to 30% of these wouldn't be allowed to go on sale in Europe because they don't have enough UVA protection (sunburns are primarily caused by UVB rays, but UVA rays contribute to skin cancer and premature aging).
Part of the problem is that the FDA hasn't completed safety and effectiveness for UVA-protecting compounds used in Europe (i.e. Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M and Mexoryl SX)—even though the EWG believes them to be safe. "There is a lot of pushback from industry," says Lunder.
The FDA's rule:Sunscreen products that are not broad spectrum or that are broad spectrum with SPF values from 2 to 14 will be labeled with a warning that reads: "Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."
EWG says: The warning should be on all sunscreens. Even people who use broad spectrum sunscreens are at risk. "People who wear sunscreen have been shown to stay out in the sun longer, so their overall dose of UV is higher," says Lunder.
The FDA's rule: Manufacturers cannot make claims that sunscreens are "waterproof" or "sweatproof," or identify their products as "sunblocks." Water resistance claims on the product's front label must tell how much time a user can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Two times will be permitted on labels: 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
EWG says: "This is going to be major," says Lunder. "[Right now] there is an overblown sense of protection for consumers. Now water-resistance claims will be backed up by test data."
The FDA's rule: FDA is proposing a regulation that would require sunscreen products that have SPF values higher than 50 to be labeled as "SPF 50+." FDA does not have adequate data demonstrating that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide additional protection compared to products with SPF values of 50.
EWG says: This will be helpful to consumers—if it happens. Until then, we will have to use our judgment. So remember: Even if you're using SPF 100 sunscreen, you can't fry out in the sun all day without consequences.
[Top Image: Flickr user Rob!. Middle Image: FDA]