As the summer sun finally triumphed over the clouds that plagued the Midwest all spring, the FDA released a timely proposal that may change regulations on a summertime necessity: sunscreen.
In 1978, the FDA began instituting guidelines designed to keep up with the ever-changing research on sunscreen efficacy and safety. At that time, the ceiling for recommended SPF labeling value was set at 15, a world away from the sky-high numbers we see today. The FDA believes that these excessively high advertised SPF values are misleading to consumers because, contrary to conventional wisdom, SPF 100 does not protect twice as well as SPF 50. Consequently, one of the main points of the new proposed rule is to cap SPF labeling at 60+, although the sale of products prepared with SPF values up to 80 will still be permitted so as to not stifle beneficial research and innovative formulations.
Though the change in SPF labeling is an item of little controversy, a hot debate has ensued over the use of chemical filters in sunscreen. These include compounds like oxybenzone and octocrylene, which work by absorbing UV rays and converting them to heat that then dissipates from the user’s skin. Some chemical sunscreens have recently been highlighted as causing allergies and skin irritation, along with more serious problems like hormone disruption and decreased birth weight. A recent study by the Environmental Working Group tested over 1,300 sun care products for ingredient safety and efficacy. Two-thirds of these products would not pass the proposed FDA rules, as they provide “inferior sun protection or contain concerning ingredients.”
Another concern over chemical sunscreens is the risk that they may impose on coral reefs. When oxybenzone and octinoxate are introduced into tropical waters they can speed up coral bleaching and slow down the growth of new coral. The US Virgin Islands just introduced a bill that, if passed, will prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing these two chemical filters. Hawaii and the Florida Keys have already banned such ingredients, setting a trend that many coastal communities may soon follow.
The unease consumers feel over chemical filters may be the reason natural mineral sunscreens have been trending so highly in the past year. Unlike chemical filters that react with UV light, mineral sunscreens create a physical layer that coats the skin and simply reflects the sun’s rays. The sale of products that claim to contain “naturally sourced sunscreen ingredients” is growing seven times faster than sunscreen category sales as a whole, according to Nielsen sales data. However, whether the filter is mineral or chemical, the FDA thoroughly maintains that daily use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 is critical to stay safe in the sun this summer.