Here's how you can stay sun-safe this summer

Topics: Public Health, Cancer, Regulatory, Federal Government

by Aly Seidel, staff writer

With the start of summer comes prominent sunscreen displays in retail stores, but not all of the sunscreen on display is created equal—and some experts say regulatory hurdles are partly to blame.

Why FDA approval for sunscreen takes so long

A fundamental obstacle to more effective sunscreen is that, before new sun-protecting ingredients can come to market in the United States, they must first be approved by FDA. But the approval process can take a long time: An analysis by Media General concluded that FDA has delayed approving new sunscreen ingredients, and in some cases manufacturers have been waiting 14 years.

But Joshua Sharfstein—former FDA deputy commissioner from 2009 to 2011, who currently is a professor and vice dean for public health training and practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—noted the challenges and regulatory hurdles FDA faces in regulating over-the-counter drugs.

In a New England Journal of Medicine perspective, Sharfstein writes that unlike the data-driven approval process for prescription drugs, "the pathway for over-the-counter products is supported by no additional resources." Instead, "[t]he agency must issue proposed and final rules, with multiple opportunities for public comment, before authorizing each class of products," he explains, adding that such rules often require "economic analyses, with clearance often required from both [HHS] and the White House Office of Management and Budget."

According to Sharfstein, "Between procedural requirements and inadequate resources, over-the-counter product regulation proceeds in slow motion as compared with the rest of the agency."

The Sunscreen Innovation Act, signed into law by former President Barack Obama in November 2014, looked to alleviate some of these regulatory hurdles and allow FDA to review and approve new ingredients aimed at improving sunscreens.

However, Sharfstein writes that "the legislation provided no new resources, no new authority for postmarketing safety, and little new flexibility for the agency in the review process." Sharfstein calls on Congress to "try again" and pass legislation that provides FDA with the flexibility and resources needed to access the "right data" and issue approvals "without years of rulemaking."

What consumers can do in the meantime.

In lieu of additional regulations to improve sunscreen available on the market, what can consumers do to better protect themselves from the sun?

Research whether your sunscreen measures up

Although sunscreens under FDA regulations are required to meet the SPF levels on their labels, the federal government does not routinely test sunscreens. Instead, the agency requires manufacturers to self-test their products when they enter the market or are reformulated.

That approach doesn't seem to be working. Data from Consumer Reports found that nearly half of the 60 sunscreens tested failed to meet the SPF claim on the label, leaving consumers vulnerable to the sun. Several of the low-performing sunscreens featured brand names, such as Banana Boat Kids Tear-Free, CVS Kids Sun Lotion SPF 50 and Sting-Free SPF 50 lotion.

The study found that mineral-based, or natural, sunscreens performed particularly poorly. According to the study, only 26% of the 19 mineral sunscreens tested met their SPF claims.

Take into account the application method

According to FDA, it's unclear whether spray-on sunscreens are as safe or effective as rub-on lotions.

Medical professionals also are divided. Some recommend avoiding spray-on sunscreen, while others say it's better than no sunscreen at all.

The top five best-performing sunscreens identified in the Consumer Reports study included both sprays and lotions:

  • La Roche-Posay Anthellos 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk lotion;
  • Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 lotion;
  • Banana Boat SunComfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+;
  • Aveeno Protect + Hydrate SPF 30; and
  • No-Ad Sport SPF 50 lotion.

For those who opt for spray-on sunscreen, experts recommend applying it in a well-ventilated indoor location to prevent SPF from floating away in the wind. Don't spray directly on the face, and apply enough to create an "even sheen on the skin," according dermatologist Elizabeth Hale, senior vice president for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Regardless of whether sunscreen is designed to be sprayed or rubbed on, consumers should look for "broad spectrum protection" and an SPF between 15 and 50, Daniel Victor writes in the New York Times.

Apply the right amount

Consumers should aim to apply about an ounce of sunscreen, depending on their body size—enough to fill a shot glass.

Make sure to treat all exposed skin. Many people forget the tops of their ears and the tops and bottoms of their feet, according to experts. Research suggests men are more likely to miss the back of their necks and scalps, while women tend to forget their necks and chests.

Apply sunscreen often

Reapply sunscreen after swimming, even if it says it is waterproof. Also, experts say individuals who are out in the sun should reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of the SPF.

And while many people use sunscreen only in the summer months, research shows that applying sunscreen year round leads to smoother, more resilient skin, while also preventing brown spots and wrinkles.