Sunscreen Update: Still Waiting for the FDA

May 24, 2011, 5:00 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Why does the American Academy of Dermatology feel they must vigorously defend the safety of sunscreens this week? Because Consumer Reports just released a report questioning the safety of certain sunscreen ingredients, saying that almost every sunscreen they tested included a chemical linked to an adverse health effect in animal studies-- and that sunscreens with retinyl palmitate may increase the risk of birth defects.

Despite concerns about particular ingredients, Consumer Reports’ bottom line is still, much like the Dermatology Academy’s, that the proven benefits of sunscreen outweigh any potential harm from the product ingredients. But nevertheless, what is truly needed—given that 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year--is a long awaited guideline update on sunscreens from the Food and Drug Administration, due years ago. A reasonable request--given that 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, much of it linked to sun exposure.

Among sunscreen issues the agency is expected to address when it does release the report is a rating system for UVA protection. Those are the rays that cause cancer, wrinkles and aging; the sun protection factor (SPF) on sunscreen packaging only refers to UVB, the rays that cause burning.

Jamie Hirsh, an editor at Consumer Reports, says the FDA also is expected to change some terminology on sunscreen products. For example, sweatproof and waterproof might be replaced by “very water resistant.”

Summer seems an awfully good time to release the new guidelines, as people head to stores to purchase sunscreen products. But there’s still no set date for an announcement from the agency. Shelly Burgess, a spokesman for the FDA, tells NewPublicHealth: “FDA recognizes the importance of publishing a final OTC monograph [report] for sunscreen products and is making every effort to publish it as soon as possible.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.