Why Is the US Behind in Sunscreen Protection?

The rest of the world has sunscreens with more advanced ingredients than in the US. Why are we behind in protecting against skin cancer?

I was recently on vacation in Europe. Since I was in some Mediterranean countries in the middle of summer and outside quite a bit, I used sunscreen extensively to protect myself from damaging sun rays. I saw other people using brands I’d never heard of before, and when I went into a drug store, I saw many more sunscreens on offer than in the US.

I wondered why this was the case. I did a little research and I found out: Europe — and much of the rest of the world — has access to better sunscreens than we do in the US. How is this possible, considering that skin cancer rates and deaths continue to rise, while deaths from many other types of cancer decline?

A sunscreen sold in the US with an SPF 50 allows 3 times as many ultraviolet rays to penetrate the skin as an SPF 50 product sold in Europe

It came as a shock to me to find out that the last time a new sunscreen ingredient came onto the US market was way back in 2002. Perhaps this is why a sunscreen sold in the US with an SPF 50 allows 3 times as many ultraviolet rays to penetrate the skin as an SPF 50 product sold in Europe.

Since 2002, 8 ingredients have been awaiting FDA approval. Four of these — Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl XL and Mexoryl SX (also known as ecamsule) — have been used in European products for years.

Another problem with sunscreens sold in the US is that they are only effective against UVB rays, one of the 2 wavelengths of ultraviolet light from the sun believed to cause skin damage. As dermatologist Renata H. Mullen explains in a recent opinion piece, while US sunscreens are pretty effective against UVB light — the kind that causes sunburn — they’re not that great at protecting against UVA rays. This is problematic, as UVA rays are the ones that can penetrate deeper into the skin and cause skin cancer.

It’s clear that the US has a sunscreen problem, and it’s quite serious. Every hour, an American dies from melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation. That amounts to 10,000 people per year. This year, more than 178,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma.

The FDA could approve more sunscreen ingredients — such as the ones used in sunscreens abroad for years and those already awaiting approval — becausse they have been proven safe and even more effective than the ones currently on the market here. In 2014, the FDA enacted the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a new process to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen active ingredients. Yet 4 years later, we have seen no new active ingredients approved.

Until new and better sunscreens come to the market, the best way to protect yourself from harmful sun rays is to use sunscreens that are not only effective, but lack potentially dangerous chemicals. MedShadow has published information, courtesy of EWG, that can help you make the best decision.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is a freelance writer and former MedShadow content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including BioCentury, The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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