How the FDA’s skepticism of sunscreen is burning Americans

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Every day, almost 10,000 People in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer.

The good news is that applying sunscreen can significantly reduce the risk of skin cancer. The bad news is that the federal government is doing its best to keep effective sunscreens out of the hands of everyday Americans.

Unlike most developed countries, the United States classifies sunscreen as a drug and not a cosmetic. That means sunscreens are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which doesn’t have the best track record of quickly approving new therapies. The agency has not approved a new type of sunscreen since 1999. We’re doing the same things we were a quarter century ago, despite advances in the science behind preventing sunburn, or worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Europe, countries classify sunscreen as a cosmetic. This classification has given companies the freedom to create more effective products, with much lower barriers to entry into the market.


Lawmakers from both parties are pushing for a reclassification of sunscreen as a cosmetic in the United States. This would relax regulatory barriers that keep Americans from buying newer, more effective sunscreen.

Sunscreen works by blocking potentially harmful ultraviolet rays from entering the skin using one of two types of filters. Physical filters, like the thick, white zinc oxide traditionally associated with sunscreen, literally block light from hitting your skin. Chemical filtersmeanwhile, neutralize UV ​​rays before they have a chance to cause damage.

While physical filters have remained largely the same for decades, chemical filters are getting better every year. The more effective chemical filters become, the less need for thick, sticky physical ingredients. Manufacturers can add chemical filters to body lotions and face creams, things people wear all the time, not just when they go to the beach.

This type of sunscreen not only makes for a more pleasant experience. They also increase the likelihood that people will wear sunscreen all the time, not just during traditional summer activities — something the American Academy of Dermatology recommends, but only 13.5% of Americans currently do so.

As an economist from George Mason University Alex Tabarrok commented last month: “Many dermatologists argue that U.S. sunscreens are far behind the scientific frontier, and they worry that the Food and Drug Administration’s decades-long delay in approving new sunscreens for purchase in the U.S. is contributing to the rising rates of skin cancer.”

Tabarrok noted this further most American sunscreens are only effective against the type of UV rays we encounter on particularly sunny days, the kind that causes sunburn. But there are other, more dangerous rays that the sun continuously emits, even on cold and cloudy days.

So even if an American were to wear sunscreen every day, there’s a chance they would still be exposed to these more harmful UV rays. That’s one of the reasons why most American sunscreens are used does not comply European safety standards.

It is rare for Europe to lead the United States in new drug approvals. In February the RAND Corporation found that, thanks to our country’s more market-oriented health care system, “most new drugs are sold first in the United States [and] the United States has access to the majority of new drugs overall.”

But the FDA prides itself on its careful, methodical approval process. To get approval for a new drug, companies have to navigate three phases of clinical trials, a process that can take time decade or more. That process may be useful for experimental drugs that carry a high risk of dangerous side effects. But there is no use for sunscreen.

That’s why lawmakers are pushing to reclassify sunscreen as a cosmetic. It’s a testament to how logical and long overdue this reform is that such unlikely bedfellows as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. same side of the issue.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, and the incidence of skin cancer is increasing to get up. Making it easier for Americans to access more effective sunscreens could reverse this trend.

Too often, medical progress comes slowly. It takes decades of research and billions of dollars to bring new drugs to market. With sunscreen, lawmakers and regulators have a rare opportunity to make significant short-term health gains with very little effort.

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