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Environmental connections to public health >>

Sunscreen - Lessons Learned From a Trip to the Beach

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It's fair to say that I'm not a beach person.  My hair is pale blonde and my skin is the color of a marshmallow, if it had freckles.  I have nightmarish memories of being covered head to toe in sunscreen and still getting burned.  So now when I visit the shore, I faithfully apply one of the sunscreens highly rated by EWG's Sunscreen Guide, sit under an umbrella and still worry about getting burned. 

Since all my relatives know I work for the Environmental Working Group, advocating, for among other things, stronger sunscreen regulations, when my wife's family threw a beach reunion recently, we were given the job of making sure that everyone had enough highly rated sunscreen.  We accomplished the mission quite well.  (Well, Meghan did most of the work).  

So I was shocked when I saw my pregnant sister-in-law who has been concerned about chemical exposure during her pregnancy, spraying sunscreen on her husband's back.  As we detailed in our 2012 Sunscreen Guide inhaling sprays is a bad idea. I told my sister-in-law that the federal Food and Drug Administration plans to require sprays to carry warnings such as "use in a well ventilated area" and "intentional misuse... can be harmful or fatal."  Thankfully, I didn't see that sunscreen again on the trip.  

But, looking around the beach, I did see many other poorly rated sunscreens, some of which are so bad they're in EWG's Hall of Shame.  I realized that no matter how many supporters EWG has, how many millions more people visit our website  and how often we're mentioned in the press, there are still a lot of people out there who have no idea their sunscreens are ineffective and pose health risks.

This is a problem routinely faced by all of us who work to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act and the regulation of personal care products and sunscreens.  Many Americans believe that if a personal care product such as sunscreen is on the shelf it must be safe and effective.  But as we know all too well, that is just not the case.  People often ask why we need government regulation of these products.  That's easy:  we believe products sold to consumers should be safe.

Last summer, after more than 30 years, the FDA finally issued regulations that will require sunscreens that claim "broad spectrum" protection to block both UVA and UVB rays.  The agency barred use of the terms "sunblock," "sweat proof," and "waterproof."  While the test to determine UVA and UVB blocking effectiveness is relatively weak these regulations would be a step in the right direction.  

Just days before the regulations were to take effect, the FDA announced a delay until December of this year.  That ensured at least one more summer of ineffective and dangerous sunscreens on store shelves.  

Too often one delay becomes two delays becomes three delays and so on.  But on July 9, President Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act into law, which includes a provision written by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) prohibiting further delay beyond December in implementing the regulatory requirements. 

What I learned on my beach trip is that we need to keep trying to educate consumers about products we all use so they can make the best decisions.  But we also have to recognize that people can't shop their way out of the problem when there are few or no truly safe and effective choices out there.  That's why Congress and government agencies must do their part to ensure that our sunscreens, other personal care products and consumer products are safe.


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