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When Kristin Francis, a consultant living in Jersey City, visits Europe, she comes home with bottles of foreign sunscreen. Francis considers sunscreen from Europe the perfect souvenir, seeing as it's far superior to the products she can buy in America.
"Their sunscreen works so much better than ours," she told Racked. "Not only is it better at preventing burning, but it's not as sticky or greasy as the ones I find in the US. [One sunscreen], Vichy, absorbs into skin better, doesn't leave a chalky residue and doesn't sting my eyes."
It's almost hard to believe that America is home to some of the most outdated sun protection products in the world. It is, and it's been this way for some time now.
The last time a new sunscreen ingredient was introduced to the US market was in 2002. The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, making the process for ingredient approval cumbersome. Eight new OTC sunscreen ingredients have been pending in the FDA's queue for more than a decade, while countries in Europe and Asia have been enjoying the same ingredients for years and are constantly introducing innovative new options.
Around a year and a half ago, a team of dermatologists, ingredient manufacturers, researchers, scientists and public advocates teamed together to create the Public Access to Sunscreen Coalition or PASS Coalition, to do something about our lack of sunscreen ingredient innovation. They've helped Congress draft a bill called the Sunscreen Innovation Act, which calls for a more efficient and transparent system in which the FDA approves sunscreen ingredients. The bill also calls for a timeframe the FDA would have to abide by to approve (or reject) ingredients. Under the proposed bill, the FDA would have 11 months to decide on new sunscreen ingredient applications and eight months to decide on the existing eight pending applications. The bill passed through the Legislative Branch Subcommittee Jurisdiction in May and is currently pending approval in the House and Senate. The PASS Coalition hopes the bill will be voted on by the end of this month, before Congressional recess starts in August.
The last time a new sunscreen ingredient was introduced to the US market was in 2002.
"Now is the time to pass the bill because the entire community is aligned with making this happen," PASS Coalition's Michael Werner said. "There's growing recognition that skin cancer is a major public health problem. There's a real acknowledgement that we need to respond."
More than two million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and one in every five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. There are more cases of skin cancer seen annually than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. Daily use of sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher that blocks UVA rays (which cause premature skin aging, wrinkles and sun spots) and UVB rays (which cause sunburn) have proven to reduce the development risks of skin cancer.
Image via Shutterstock
"It doesn't mean that we, in the US, don't have good products, we do!" noted Wendy Selig, president of the Melanoma Research Alliance. "It means that the choice and product innovation of these [sunscreen] products have been frozen in time. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, research and development has been happening, with new knowledge about UVA formulating to move forward."
The FDA is paying attention to skin disease: Several new melanoma treatments have been approved in recent years, Selig pointed out. But sunscreen ingredients must go through rigorous evaluations, rounds of paperwork and clinical trials, while in Europe, Australia and Asia, the product is considered a cosmetic. FDA spokesperson Stephanie Yao told Racked that sunscreen ingredients are subject to several other cumbersome phases, like "recipe books."
"As drug products, sunscreen marketed in the US must comply with drug regulatory standards. Cosmetics are held to different standards than drug products, both in the US and in other countries," she explained.
Yao cited public health priorities as an excuse for the FDA's speed in addressing the ingredients but admitted the division is ready for restructuring.
"We are participants and members in various collaborative groups that are working to establish internationally harmonized sunscreen requirements. Most of these harmonization efforts are ongoing," she said.
"We're working collaboratively with the FDA to create a win-win-win process," Werner said. "One that's a win for the FDA with administering a process that works, a win for manufactures because the process would be predicable, and a win for consumers [buying the protection]."
"The choice and product innovation of these sunscreen products have been frozen in time."
FDA staffers might argue that the ingredients used in America are safer than those used overseas because of the rigorous testing process, but scientific data proves otherwise. Ingredients currently pending in the FDA like Bisoctrizole and Bemotrizinol (also known as Tinosorb), for example, are commonly used in European sunscreens and have been proven to offer broad-spectrum formulations for more effective products, according to the PASS Coalition. Ecamsule and Drometrizole Trisiloxane, other ingredients waiting for FDA approval, have been used in topical products like creams and lotions since the 1990s.
"Some UV filters actually provide longer and better UVA protection," said Dr. Stephen Wang a dermatologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to Racked. "Sunscreens offer certain spectrums of protection. The ingredients waiting to be approved can deliver better protection. The US currently has three [ingredients providing] UVA protection whereas there are a lot more available in Europe and Asia."
Plus the chemicals used in American products for UVA protection have plenty of flaws. Experts noted an ingredient like oxybenzone, found in basically every American sunscreen, could cause allergic reactions and hormone disruption.
Image via Shutterstock
But just because a sunscreen is made internationally does not mean it is necessarily safe, as there are might be other unknown chemicals inside a bottle whose label you can't even read. Until the Sunscreen Innovation Act actually passes and the FDA moves things along, Wang suggests using international ingredients from reputable companies.
"If you're talking about sunscreen that is manufactured by multi-national companies and has a certain reputation, that's safe," he said. "But if you bring home a sunscreen that has no track records or known entities, you have no safety records to look at."
In Kristin Francis's case, she did plenty of online research into the ingredient Mexoryl XL (Ecamsule), which is a sunscreen ingredient used in international sunscreens like those sold by L'Oreal. Francis's preferred sunscreen of choice, Vichy, is sold in the US but with a variation of her desired ingredient, Mexoryl SX, which she said does not work as well.
"It's hard as a consumer," she said. "You do have to go out and do your own research and [then wonder] do I trust the FDA or the EU?"