On Friday June 18, the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), a D.C. based environmental research group, issued its annual report about sunscreen and brought to light the bureaucratic fumbling of the Food and Drug Administration.
Sunscreen is an important issue to Southwest Florida given our sunny climate and frequent outdoor activities. Florida apparently takes the sunscreen warnings seriously since our skin cancer rate is on par with less sunny states like Montana and Wyoming.
The EWG studied 500 different sunscreens, but could only recommend about 8% of them. They rejected about 60% of them because they contain oxybenzene; a chemical they claim causes hormone disruption. 40% of those tested contained retinyl palmitate; a type of vitamin that they claim increases the risk of skin cancer. Nor does the group recommend anything with a SPF (sun protection factor) over 50 because it gives a false sense of security. You can view the EWG recommendations here. Even the FDA wants to prohibit SPF ratings higher than 50 because they are misleading and there is no assurance that the values are truthful. Who is responsible for ensuring the values are correct? The FDA. So why are these chemicals there and why are the SPF ratings not standardized? The answer is simple: The FDA can’t get its act together.
In 1978, President Barack Obama was in high school, Laverne & Shirley was the top rated TV show, it cost 63 cents for a gallon of gas and the FDA began work on writing regulations for sunscreen. In the past 32 years, we’ve had 6 men occupy the White House, the advent of the internet, the end of the Cold war and numerous other notable events. What we still haven’t seen, after 32 years of waiting, are the regulations for sunscreen. Yes, you read that correctly. In 32 years of “working on it”, the FDA still hasn’t given us a final product. Quite literally, an employee could have worked an entire career at the FDA and retired without ever seeing the task completed.
They almost did it in 1999, but realized that after 21 years of writing, the proposed regulations only dealt with UVB ray protection and completely ignored UVA rays, which also leads to skin cancer. In 2007, they made another stab at publishing the standards, but their findings were challenged. Now, in 2010, the FDA is promising they’ll have regulations ready by October. Of course it takes a year or more for the standards to actually go into effect, so the promise isn’t as solid as it sounds.
An unscientific survey of 10 random sunbathers at a Lee County pool found that not one of them was aware that the government doesn’t have standards for sunscreen products. 9 of the 10 also believed that the higher the SPF, the lower their risk of skin cancer was. When told that the standards were still being worked on after 32 years, one of those surveyed, Thom Singer, a 20 year resident of Southwest Florida, remarked that he found that “disappointing, but not surprising at all.” Kimberly Rogers, a 12 year resident, said that she was going to start reading the product information more carefully after hearing the test results.