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FDA needs to strengthen safety standards for sunscreen

You should get the protection you believe a sunscreen provides

Published: May 23, 2014 03:25 PM
The FDA doesn't verify manufacturer testing of sunscreens.
Photo: Catherine Ledner

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With Memorial Day—and the unofficial start of summer—here, it’s time to stock up on sunscreen. A good sunscreen will help protect you from skin cancers, sunburn, and skin aging. (Remember to make a hat and clothing part of your sun-protection strategy). Given how important sunscreens are, it’s surprising that these products are not heavily regulated for safety.

Sunscreen manufacturers must test their products, according to Food and Drug Administration regulations. But the FDA doesn’t verify that testing, require manufacturers to report results, or do premarket testing. Sunscreens must meet certain FDA standards for the use of specific terms on their labels, such as SPF (sun protection factor,) which refers to sunscreens’ ability to shield you from ultraviolet B rays. In Consumer Reports’ recent sunscreen review, we found a wide variability of effectiveness against the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet A rays, which underscores the importance of choosing from our recommended choices.

Clearly, when it comes to sunscreens, there’s room for improvement. That’s why Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wrote the FDA this week about changes we’d like to see. We’re concerned about whether consumers are truly getting the protection they believe their sunscreens provide. We’re recommending that the FDA improve its regulations in three key areas:

Better ingredients. The FDA should move quickly to review sunscreen ingredients that might offer better sun protection, including those that have been widely used in Europe and others parts of the world for years.

Spray safety information. We urge the FDA to provide you with information on how to safely use sunscreen sprays, and whether all active ingredients are appropriate for use in sprays. There are concerns about whether consumers typically apply enough spray to be effective and about the health risks of inhaling sunscreen, some of which contain titanium dioxide, a possible carcinogen when inhaled. We understand the FDA requested additional information about spray safety and effectiveness in 2011 and is currently evaluating it. Because of the concerns, we don’t recommend sprays for children.

High-SPF products.
The FDA needs to provide you with more information about sunscreens that claim they offer an SPF above 50. You may think high-SPF sunscreens are significantly more effective than lower ones, but our testing found that while the extremely high-SPF products we tested performed adequately, some of those do not meet their claims. We’re submitting this data to the FDA for consideration. The agency proposed limiting the maximum SPF to 50+ in 2011, and we hope it finalizes that proposal as soon as possible. 

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.


   

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