After 33 years of discussions, the Food and Drug Administration has finally released its new sunscreen regulations. While they make some strides in restricting advertising claims – no more “waterproof” or “sweatproof” – some feel the new rules aren’t restrictive enough. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, about the regulations and their shortcomings.
GELLEMAN: It's time for fun in the sun. So grab your bathing suit, your beach towel, and don’t forget your sunscreen, the stuff you slather all over your body and your kids to keep away those summer rays. But while it says “sunblock,” it may not be blocking as much sun as you thought.
After 33 years, there’s something new under the sun - the FDA is finally taking action on the labeling and ingredients in sunscreen. David Andrews is senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group – which has been investigating and assessing sunscreens for many years. David, thanks for joining us.
ANDREWS: Thank you, a pleasure to be here.
GELLERMAN: 33 years. Why has it taken more than three decades for the FDA to come up with regulations for sunscreen?
ANDREWS: It’s taken 33 years this far, and it’s still continuing at this point. The FDA has just released a small portion of the regulations that cover sunscreen. And really, this announcement taken in its entirety is relatively underwhelming considering the amount of time that it’s has taken to get here.
GELLERMAN: Well, let’s look at exactly what the FDA has come up with so far.
ANDREWS: Well, the FDA has taken a few actions with this recent announcement, specifically related to not allowing unsubstantiated claims. So this includes the use of “sunblock,” “waterproof,” and “sweat proof.” These are advertising claims that are, in fact, incorrect.
GELLERMAN: You can’t use the word sunblock anymore?
ANDREWS: That’s correct. None of these sunscreens completely block the sun, but they do provide a level of sun protection.
GELLERMAN:So what didn’t the FDA do that you would have liked to have seen done?
ANDREWS: We would have really liked to see the FDA limit the SPF to 50.
GELLERMAN: SPF being the ‘Sun Protection Factor,’ that number we see on the bottle.
ANDREWS: Correct, SPF being the number that everyone associates with sunscreens. This was in their proposed 2007 rule that SPF should be limited to 50, and in this case, really, FDA has decided to delay action on this even though they have noted that they see no benefit to higher SPF.
GELLERMAN: Some of these things have sun-protective factors of, you know, 65+.
ANDREWS: There are a large number of sunscreens on the market that are claiming increasingly higher number in terms of the sun protection factor. This year we see a number of products that claim SPFs of 100 or greater.
GELLERMAN: So, if I had an SPF of 100 would that be twice as good as 50?
ANDREWS: In terms of sun protection, it provides a very marginal difference. Maybe 1 percent, it blocks 1 percent more of the UV radiation. Our concern is that the higher SPF numbers really provide a false sense of security and allow you to be overexposed to UV radiation, even though you think you may be even better protected.
GELLERMAN: Now, we all know the sun has two major components, right. It has UVA - ultra-violet A, and ultra-violet B. I always forget which one causes sunburn. Which one’s that?
ANDREWS: UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn. It’s a higher energy radiation and causes direct skin damage. UVA is a lower energy radiation, it’s more prevalent, but penetrates deeper into our skin and causes longer-term health damage - melanoma and skin damage as well as skin aging. And yet, at this time, there is not direct scientific evidence that sunscreen use alone can prevent or even reduce your risk of skin cancer.
GELLERMAN: Boy, talk about a false sense of security! You think most people are putting this stuff on to prevent sunburn and prevent skin cancer.
ANDREWS: That’s my primary concern, or motivator, for using sunscreen on myself and on my children - it’s really that long-term risk of skin cancer is always in the back of my mind when I apply it. And I think the public really needs to be aware that sunscreen needs to be used in conjunction with a sun protection strategy that includes clothing, umbrellas – all these steps to reduce exposure to UV radiation.
GELLERMAN: So what do you slather on your kids?
ANDREWS: Primarily I look for sunscreens that provide very strong UVA protection. And currently on the market there’s two active ingredients that are in the majority of products that may provide this strong UVA protection, and that’s zinc or avobenzone. By and large, these products are the safest and the most effective, currently on the market in terms of providing sun protection.
GELLERMAN: Are there ingredients in sunscreens that we should avoid?
ANDREWS: One ingredient that Environmental Working Group has really highlighted as a chemical of concern in sunscreens is retinyl-palmitate, or vitamin A – a form of vitamin A. And this ingredient is relatively prevalent in sunscreens - over 30 percent of the sunscreens have this ingredient - and yet, in 10 years of studies that have been conducted by the FDA, it has been shown that this ingredient really promotes skin tumor growth in animals exposed to sunlight. So the concern is that you’re applying this ingredient onto your skin, and you’re going into the sun and the ingredient breaks down and may actually speed the growth of skin tumors.
GELLERMAN: So, what happens now? They released these new regulations - when do they go into effect?
ANDREWS: Early next spring the regulations are in effect for the large manufacturers. So consumers will be seeing the updated sunscreen bottles next summer on the shelves.
GELLERMAN: Well, I’m going into the sun this summer - what do I do?
ANDREWS: Well, use sunscreen as part of a larger sun-protection strategy, and when you’re looking for specific sunscreens make sure to look for products that provide broad-spectrum protection and really dig down and look for specific ingredients - zinc, avabenzone, and to a lesser extent titanium dioxide, as these products, or these ingredients, provide broad-spectrum protection.
GELLERMAN: Well, David, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.
ANDREWS: My pleasure, thank you.
GELLERMAN: David Andrews is senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. For more information and a list of recommended sunscreens, go to our website, LOE.ORG.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth