New proposals should help address sunscreen safety concerns—but will they be enough?

By Dan Nosowitz
Updated March 04, 2019

Misleading labels and questionable ingredients are just two of the many things that make sunscreen in the U.S. behind the times, and change is finally on the way: The FDA just announced some new proposals to make sunscreen safer and more effective.

Image courtesy of Getty.

The FDA hasn’t approved any new filters—that’s the term for the stuff that actually blocks light rays—since the 1990s, despite new filters being widely available. As a result, there are few ingredients in American sunscreens that can block UVA, which can penetrate deeply into the skin and cause premature aging and potentially lead to skin cancer. Various states, including Hawaii, are trying to ban those few ingredients, because they’re likely to be dangerous to coral reefs. There are also new ingredients that can make sunscreen more pleasant to use: less greasy, for example, or more likely to absorb into the skin instead of leaving white streaks.

These new ingredients aren’t cutting-edge science; they’re widely available in other countries. But the FDA regulates sunscreen as an over-the-counter medicine, like Advil, rather than as a cosmetic, which means that the regulatory process is slow.

FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, M.D., recently sent out a release with some new proposals for how to modernize the way the FDA treats sunscreen. The FDA wants to examine most of the ingredients used in sunscreen to find out if they’re safe enough for use and change the labeling to clearly state the active ingredients on the front of the package. They also want to phase out certain products from being marketed as sunscreen, including combined sunscreen and insect repellent, and wipes, shampoos, and towelettes, because those have not been shown to be effective.

All sunscreens with an SPF rating of 15 or higher would be required to be “broad spectrum,” meaning they protect against both UVB (which is standard) and UVA (which isn’t, necessarily). But that’s a major problem, because the most important UVA filter, oxybenzone, is already the subject of controversy and could well be declared not safe.

And, as Vox notes, the FDA hasn’t announced a way to streamline the approval process for new filters, meaning there aren’t many good alternatives. One workaround is to buy European sunscreen, which is available online. (La Roche-Posay, $21.99,  is a well-reviewed favorite.)

The upgrade can be expensive, but if you’re spending a lot of time in the sun, it might be worth it to shell out a little more money.


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