Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

FDA on sunscreens — the undecider

When life’s a beach – and also when it’s not – we all need a sunscreen that gets the job done.   With skin cancer the most common of all malignancies and bogus claims and hype fogging the sun care products aisle, you’d think the federal Food and Drug Administration would step up the pace to issue sunscreen safety standards.

But you’d be wrong.  Last July 15, Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook wrote FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging her to wrap up the agency’s safety rules, in the works since 1978.  (That’s not a misprint.  1978. The Carter administration.  “The Deer Hunter” won the Oscar for Best Picture.  The Iranian Revolution ignited.  Shag hair, disco fever fashion…  Well, you get the idea.)

“In the absence of formal guidance from FDA,” Cook wrote, “companies continue to make billions of dollars annually misleading consumers about the protection from the sun their products offer.”

After nearly six months, the agency has responded.   A letter from FDA policy analyst Jeff D. O’Neill has just landed in Cook’s inbox.

“Following a thorough review of public comments received in response to the 1999 final rule and reviews an analyses of other data and information related to protection against UVA radiation, we published a sunscreen proposed rule in 2007,” O’Neill wrote.

The FDA usually receives about 100 comments on any proposed rule.  In the case of the sunscreen proposal, consumers, health advocates and affected industries filed nearly 3,000 comments, some with technical data attached.

The agency might have taken such unusual interest  as a mandate for action and ramped up to wrestle all those submissions to the ground.

But nooooooo.

O’Neill explained:

Although we understand your concern regarding the protracted nature of this process, we trust that you will appreciate the need for us to continue to fully investigate new research and development for sunscreen products, permit adequate opportunity for public comment, and weigh research and development fairly and with full input from FDA subject area experts as well as industry stakeholders and the American public.

We take that to mean — don’t hold your breath.

The agency’s logic is downright baffling.  It seems that the higher priority the public attaches to an issue,  the less likely the agency is to make an actual decision.

EWG will keep updating its own sunscreen database, which now analyzes close to 2,000 products.  And we’ll continue to write FDA and encourage our readers to do so.   Science never stops.  Research and development are always coming up with innovations.    Why can’t the FDA  issue responsible guidance on the current crop of sunscreens and their marketing claims?

This year – preferably before beach season – would be about right.

Then, as new sun protection chemicals come on line and agency’s scientists refine their understanding of the way these substances work, the FDA can issue updates.

There is this cool new communications medium called the Internet….


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4 Responses to “FDA on sunscreens — the undecider”

  1. passa passa says:

    Interesting article, I am now a subscriber!

  2. Jonell says:

    Isn’t it sad and so darned upsetting how the powers to be don’t seem to care about humankind? They are more focused on pharmaceuticals and chemicals and money. Why not think about helping all to have optimal, vibrant health. What would that mean? Less medication needed, happier people? Hmmmm, that should put a smile on the face of FDA to think that they would actually be helping, not hurting people. That’s my take anyway.

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Dear Jonell, Thanks for reading and commenting. Sunscreens are a huge business. So why can’t the FDA give top priority to issuing some practical rules governing their advertising claims and ingredients? Seems obvious. This is why I put this post in the “government (in)action” category. Elaine