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Does Europe have better sunscreens?

Americans have fewer choices in their sunscreen options – and therefore notably poorer protection from harmful ultraviolet A, or UVA, rays – than Europeans do. UVA rays have less energy than ultraviolet B, or UVB, rays and don’t burn the skin. But UVA rays can cause the skin to age, suppress the immune system and contribute to the development of skin cancer. So although most U.S. sunscreens prevent sunburn effectively when used correctly, they aren’t as good as European sunscreens at preventing the more subtle skin damage produced by UVA radiation.

No new sunscreen filters have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration since the 1990s. In 2019, the FDA proposed rules to strengthen the UVA protection offered by U.S. sunscreens, expressing concern over the role UVA rays play in cancer development. But without new active ingredients designed to reduce UVA rays, the changes to sunscreen formulations will be minor.

In the nations regulated by the European Commission, manufacturers voluntarily comply with a recommendation that all sunscreens offer UVA protection at least one-third as potent as the SPF, the measure of a product’s ability to shield against UVB rays, which are the rays responsible for sunburn (European Commission 2006, Colipa 2009). So if, for instance, a product advertises SPF 30, its UVA protection must be at least 10.

EWG estimates that, because most sunscreens don’t filter UVA rays well enough, those sold in the U.S. would be too weak for the European market. An EWG study of laboratory tests of 51 sunscreen products found that only 35 percent of the products tested met the EU standard, but 94 percent would pass the current U.S. standard. And FDA tests of U.S. products found that UVA protection varied significantly, even among those carrying the same SPF on their label (Coelho 2020).

British researcher Brian Diffey evaluated the UV protection of four U.S. sunscreens and four sold in Europe, each of which had an SPF value of 50 or 50+. He found that the U.S. sunscreens allowed, on average, three times more UVA rays to pass through to the skin than the European products did (Diffey 2015).

Sunscreen manufacturers that make products for the European market can pick and choose among seven ingredients that offer strong protection against UVA radiation. Some of these chemicals appear to offer significant performance advantages over the sunscreen chemicals the FDA permits in products sold on the American market. Only two FDA-approved ingredients offer strong protection against UVA rays, avobenzone and zinc oxide.

UVA filters

There is a disconnect between the chemical approval process and what’s available on the market. The FDA is reluctant to approve new sunscreen ingredients, but there’s little reassurance most of the chemicals already being used in U.S. products are safe.

According to the FDA’s 2019 proposed final sunscreen monograph, only two active ingredients allowed in U.S. sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are considered safe and effective. Twelve other chemical-based active ingredients have already been approved, and some can be found in most products on the U.S. market. Nonetheless, the agency doesn’t have enough data to determine the safety of these chemicals.

EWG believes all sunscreen chemicals should be subject to careful review and high standards of safety. This is critical to ensuring sunscreens provide adequate UV protection and protect Americans from chemicals that may endanger human health. Ingredients that offer ineffective skin protection or cause irritation, skin allergies or other health risks should be tightly restricted or barred.

Between 2003 and 2010, sunscreen makers applied for FDA permission to use eight sun-filtering chemicals developed by European companies.

Four of these – Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL – appear to be more effective than avobenzone, the most common UVA filter permitted by the FDA, and deserve to be considered for the U.S. market.

Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M UVA filters, developed by BASF, seem more stable and provide greater UVA protection than avobenzone. The European Commission has studied both Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M and determined they may safely be used in sunscreens in concentrations of up to 10 percent (SCCNFP 1999, SCCS 2013).

But in 2015, the FDA responded that the sunscreen manufacturers had not submitted enough information to prove these chemicals were safe and effective for use (FDA 2015). The agency asked for more data, including complete study results, measurements of ingredient levels in people’s blood, and long-term studies of systemic toxicity and potential endocrine system disruption.

The companies have yet to satisfy FDA requests – and in the meantime, Americans are being shortchanged.

Mexoryl SX, also called ecamsule, was developed by the cosmetics manufacturer La Roche-Posay, which claims it offers strong protection. The company has sold sunscreens containing this chemical in Europe since 1993. Canada admitted it to its market and approved a successor chemical, Mexoryl XL, at concentrations up to 10 percent (Canada 2013).

In 2006, the FDA allowed La Roche-Posay to produce one specific sunscreen formulation with Mexoryl SX for the U.S. market. But in 2015, as they had with other companies, the FDA asked La Roche-Posay for more information about its other chemicals’ safety tests before allowing the company to use them in a range of sunscreen products.

Our public comment letter to the FDA in 2019 suggested the agency consider allowing these four ingredients on the market while tests are still being conducted. The current data suggest these four ingredients are as safe – if not more so – as those chemicals, like oxybenzone, that have been on the market for many years. These ingredients would give manufacturers – and therefore, consumers – more options for products with good broad-spectrum protection. For too long U.S. consumers have been stuck with inadequate products on store shelves.


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About the ratings

EWG provides information on sunscreen products from the published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate both efficacy and the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other sunscreens. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors which determine actual health risks, if any. Methodology | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

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