Health Advice



What's keeping the US from allowing better sunscreens?

Michael Scaturro, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

When dermatologist Adewole “Ade” Adamson sees people spritzing sunscreen as if it’s cologne at the pool where he lives in Austin, Texas, he wants to intervene. “My wife says I shouldn’t,” he said, “even though most people rarely use enough sunscreen.”

At issue is not just whether people are using enough sunscreen, but what ingredients are in it.

The Food and Drug Administration’s ability to approve the chemical filters in sunscreens that are sold in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and France is hamstrung by a 1938 U.S. law that requires sunscreens to be tested on animals and classified as drugs, rather than as cosmetics as they are in much of the world. So Americans are not likely to get those better sunscreens — which block the ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer and lead to wrinkles — in time for this summer, or even the next.

Sunscreen makers say that requirement is unfair because companies including BASF Corp. and L’Oréal, which make the newer sunscreen chemicals, submitted safety data on sunscreen chemicals to the European Union authorities some 20 years ago.

Steven Goldberg, a retired vice president of BASF, said companies are wary of the FDA process because of the cost and their fear that additional animal testing could ignite a consumer backlash in the European Union, which bans animal testing of cosmetics, including sunscreen. The companies are asking Congress to change the testing requirements before they take steps to enter the U.S. marketplace.

In a rare example of bipartisanship last summer, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, thanked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for urging the FDA to speed up approvals of new, more effective sunscreen ingredients. Now a bipartisan bill is pending in the House that would require the FDA to allow non-animal testing.


“It goes back to sunscreens being classified as over-the-counter drugs,” said Carl D’Ruiz, a senior manager at DSM-Firmenich, a Switzerland-based maker of sunscreen chemicals. “It’s really about giving the U.S. consumer something that the rest of the world has. People aren’t dying from using sunscreen. They’re dying from melanoma.”

Every hour, at least two people die of skin cancer in the United States. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in America, and 6.1 million adults are treated each year for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nation’s second-most-common cancer, breast cancer, is diagnosed about 300,000 times annually, though it is far more deadly.

Dermatologists Offer Tips on Keeping Skin Safe and Healthy

– Stay in the shade during peak sunlight hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daylight time.– Wear hats and sunglasses. – Use UV-blocking sun umbrellas and clothing. – Reapply sunscreen every two hours.You can order overseas versions of sunscreens from online pharmacies such as Cocooncenter in France. Keep in mind that the same brands may have different ingredients if sold in U.S. stores. But importing your sunscreen may not be affordable or practical. “The best sunscreen is the one that you will use over and over again,” said Jane Yoo, a New York City dermatologist.


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