FDA recently announced that it's postponing new sunscreen labeling requirements. What does this mean for you?
I trusted you. My mom really liked you, too. But the more I find out about you, the more I start to question whether you have my best interests in mind. One minute, you say you’re broad spectrum, then I find out all you care about is UVBs … Sunscreen, why do you have to make things so difficult?
This summer, we’ll have more information about sun care than ever before—everything from ingredients to the effects of UV rays, which are potentially more drastic than we once thought. Of course, knowledge is a good thing, but it also complicates matters.
I always start the sunscreen conversation with the simplest piece of advice, which I really believe is most important: Wear sunscreen, regardless of the type. Mineral enthusiasts, hold the boos and the tomatoes, I’m with you. That is, beyond wearing sunscreen, there are some important issues, backed by emerging science and generally (surprise, surprise) ignored by the FDA, which you should consider to get the most protection.
Mixed messages from the FDA
Last year, the FDA announced its new sunscreen labeling requirements, which were supposed to go into effect next month. These proposed rules have some problems, but overall, they would have been a positive first step toward eliminating confusing/false labeling and protecting consumers.
Unfortunately, the FDA postponed the implementation of these requirements until December (yes, that’s the middle of winter). While many companies say they’re protecting you from both UVA and UVB rays (“broad spectrum”), under current FDA regulations, they’re really only required to test for UVB (SPF) protection. But here’s what the Skin Cancer Foundation has to say about UVA:
"UVA is long wavelength (320-400 nm) UV and accounts for up to 95 percent of the solar UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface. It can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin and has for years been thought to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling. Importantly, recent studies strongly suggest that it may also initiate and exacerbate the development of skin cancers."
So why aren't companies required to test for UVA protection?
Sun care you can trust
Even if the FDA isn’t enforcing the new requirements, you should make sure that companies are testing for both forms of UV protection. Many responsible manufacturers in the natural space are doing this. In general, mineral zinc oxide offers the best best broad-spectrum protection, according to the EWG, and you can even look for the specific UVA testing ratings on labels and web sites. Right now, companies such as Badger are testing against the European star system.
The FDA requirements also would have addressed unsubstantiated claims like "sunblock" (no such thing) and "waterproof" (ditto), so be very skeptical of those claims. Also be careful of things that the FDA doesn't even touch on in its proposed requirements: SPFs over 50 aren’t proven to lend additional protection, and ingredients like oxybenzone (often found in chemical sunscreens) and vitamin A (which some research has linked to skin cancer when combined with UV rays) are potentially dangerous.
But no sun care is perfect...
Unfortunately, even the safest products and most savvy consumers can’t solve another controversial issue in the sun care industry: research about why sunscreen, regardless of what kind, may not be protecting you from serious health issues like skin cancer continues to emerge.
While we know that sunscreens can protect us from uncomfortable sunburns, we don’t know the extent to which they can protect us from skin cancer. Some studies show that yes, sunscreen reduces the risk of a certain type of skin cancer called squamous-cell carincoma (SCC), but research hasn’t confirmed the relationship between sunscreen and other types of cancer such as melanoma. Some science even implies that people who regularly wear sunscreen may actually be at greater risk of skin cancer because they tend to spend more time in the sun.
This means that regardless of how safe you think you’re being with your purchases, you still need to consider your lifestyle. I’m not trying to scare you, I promise. I’m just advising that you be judicious about your time in the sun and, in addition to wearing sunscreen, also protect your body with clothing when you can.
So what’s the truth about sunscreen? Sorry you had to read this far to find out that the question was rhetorical. The most we can do to stay safe(er) is to stay informed.