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Does Europe have better sunscreens?

Americans have fewer choices and notably poorer protection than Europeans do from ultraviolet A, or UVA, rays in their sunscreen options. UVA rays have less energy and don’t burn the skin, but they can cause the skin to age, suppress the immune system and contribute to the development of melanoma. 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 lower-energy UVA radiation.

In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration proposed rules to strengthen the UVA protection offered by U.S. sunscreens, noting concern over the role UVA plays 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 the product’s ability to shield against ultraviolet B, or UVB, rays, which burn the skin (European Commission 2006, Colipa 2009). So if a product advertises SPF 30, its UVA protection must be at least 10.

EWG estimates that, because of inadequate UVA filtering, most sunscreens sold in the U.S. would be too weak for the European market. Laboratory tests of 20 common U.S. sunscreens confirmed these findings: Only 11 of the 20 passed the European UVA test (Wang 2017). FDA researchers tested U.S. products and found that among products with the same labeled SPF, the UVA protection varied significantly (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 skin than 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

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 merit close consideration for inclusion in U.S. markets.

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

In 2015, the FDA responded that the sunscreen companies had not submitted enough information to prove their 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 on systemic toxicity and potential endocrine system disruption. The companies have yet to satisfy FDA requests. In the meantime, Americans are being shortchanged.

Mexoryl SX, also called ecamsule, was developed by cosmetics manufacturer La Roche-Posay, which claims that it offers strong, photostable protection. The company has sold sunscreens containing this chemical in Europe since 1993. Canada admitted Mexoryl SX to its market and also approved Mexoryl XL, a successor chemical, at concentrations of 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. However, in 2015, as with their request to other companies, the FDA asked La Roche-Posay for more information about its other chemicals’ safety tests before it approved the company’s application to use them in a range of sunscreen products.

Our public comment letter to the FDA in 2019 suggested that the agency consider allowing these four ingredients on the market while tests are conducted. EWG believes that all sunscreen chemicals currently being used and those under consideration for the U.S. market should be subject to careful review and high standards of safety to ensure sunscreens provide UV protection and to 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.

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. The agency has insufficient data to determine the safety of 12 chemical-based active ingredients that have already been approved, some of which can be found in the vast majority of the products found on the U.S. market. 

Ingredients used in European sunscreens should not be allowed on the U.S. market without oversight. For instance, Merck has applied to the FDA for permission to market a sunscreen ingredient called 4-MBC, or enzacamene, a UVB filter. However, laboratory tests suggest that it disrupts the hormone system (Krause 2012).


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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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