This week the FDA has detailed their plans to crack down on the dubious claims made on some sunscreens for sale in the US. In an attempt to protect consumers from being misled by claims regarding the ‘waterproof’ nature of many sunscreens, or their ‘broad spectrum’ coverage the US Food and Drug Administration is demanding that companies either prove their claims or remove the labelling.
Until now the process of buying sunscreens has left consumers to interpret the relative merits of products for themselves, with little or no guidance on how accurate or appropriate many companies’ labelling actually is. Starting next summer (2012), sunscreens bought over the counter will no longer be able to display claims regarding their performance unless they have actual evidence to substantiate those claims.
Products will not be able to claim that they have an SPF higher than 50, and there will be new standards enforced as to what ‘broad spectrum’ actually means. UVA and UVB coverage will also be regulated as there are concerns that products vary wildly in their ability to filter out both types of sun radiation.
UVB rays are seen as the most damaging and get the majority of blame for sunburn, but UVA rays can damage skin as well and also increase the risk of skin cancer.
Products with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher with coverage for both UVA and UVB rays will be allowed to claim that they are broad spectrum, and these sunscreens will also be allowed to be advertised as protecting against sin cancer and ‘aging’, i.e. wrinkles caused by free radical damage in the skin. Products that only protect against UVB meanwhile will only be allowed to state that they can protect against sunburn, rather than being protective against skin cancer, or wrinkles.
The FDA is also concerned that consumers are unaware of what ‘water-proof’ and ‘sweat-proof’ actually mean on sunscreens and that some consumers are being encouraged to think that they do not need to apply sunscreen regularly as it simply does not wear off. The terms ‘water-proof’ and ‘sweat-proof’ will likely disappear from sunscreens and be replaced by ‘water-resistant’ with a time indication given to show how long the sunscreen remains effective when in water, such as 40 minutes or an hour.
The delay in creating such regulation is largely due to the paucity of evidence for how sunscreens work and how effective they are, essentially making it difficult to disprove any manufacturer’s claims. European law has been regulating such claims for years however, and such claims (regarding skin cancer or anti-aging) are rarely seen on products sold in Europe.
Whilst the FDA regulation is good news for consumers who will have a better idea of the effectiveness of sunscreens, it may be that many people are over-reliant on these products and actually cause themselves a vitamin D deficiency by blocking sun exposure.
Having naturally healthy skin that is exposed to a little sunlight each day (15 minutes or so), but not to excessive levels or to the point of burning, may be sufficient for most fair-skinned people at most latitudes to synthesise their vitamin D needs, but for others who have dark skin or little sun exposure, the use of sunscreens may be exacerbating a serious vitamin D deficiency. FDA regulation of sunscreens should, therefore, be viewed as part of the wider message about sun exposure and skin health.