Europe’s Better Sunscreens
Americans have fewer choices and notably poorer protection from ultraviolet A rays than Europeans – mainly because of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s repeated delays.
FDA sunscreen rules that went into effect last December allow nearly every product to be marketed as “broad spectrum,” a term that implies good UVA protection.
But more than half of the 750 beach and sport sunscreens reviewed by EWG are too weak for the European market, where manufacturers voluntarily comply with a European Union recommendation that all sunscreens provide meaningful UVA protection.
In Europe, sunscreens must offer UVA protection that is at least one third as potent as the SPF (sunburn protection factor), the measure of the product’s ability to shield against UVB rays that burn the skin (European Commission 2006, Colipa 2009). In other words, if a product advertises SPF 30, its UVA protection must be at least 10.
American manufacturers are faced with a dilemma that they are powerless to resolve: until the FDA approves new ingredients that are safe and provide strong UVA protection, these companies will be hard-pressed to make products as effective as those that can be bought in Europe. It is illegal to sell European products in the U.S., so Americans do not have access to cutting-edge sunscreens.
European companies can meet high European Union standards because they can pick and choose among any of 27 sunscreen chemicals, including seven expressly designed to filter UVA radiation.
Companies that make sunscreens for the U.S. market can use only 17 chemicals approved by the FDA. Just three of those chemicals screen UVA rays. The most common is avobenzone, which the FDA approved back in 1972.
Among the chemicals approved for use in Europe are three – Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M and Mexoryl SX – that are more effective than avobenzone.
Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M offer stable, broad spectrum protection and appear to be much better UVA-blockers than avobenzone. They do not penetrate the skin for the most part nor act as hormone disruptors (Ashby 2001). They pose fewer potential health risks than ingredients in common sunscreens sold in the U.S.
Mexoryl SX, also called emcapsule, offers strong, photo-stable protection. It has been on the market in Europe since 1991 and has few safety concerns.
American sunscreen makers have asked the FDA to let them bring the most effective European chemicals to the U.S. market. Back in 2005, CIBA Specialty Chemicals Inc. applied to the FDA for approval to use Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M. The FDA has yet to make a decision on this petition.
L’Oréal followed in 2007 with an application to use Mexoryl SX. FDA has not agreed to allow this compound onto the general American market but has permitted L’Oréal to sell a few expensive sunscreens containing Mexoryl SX under its LaRoche-Posay brand. L’Oreal has petitioned the FDA to use the ingredient in more products for the American market.