What You Need to Know About the FDA’s New Proposed Sunscreen Regulations

I am a self-proclaimed Sunscreen Queen. At any given time, I have sunscreen in my purse, car,  gym bag, and all over my house. I moved to Florida last year and realized I needed to take sun protection seriously. My skin immediately threw a temper tantrum—my face freckled, and I broke out in rashes anytime I wore sunscreen. It was so fun! *sarcasm font*

After a lot of Benadryl (and whining), I did some research and self-diagnosed myself as allergic to chemical sunscreens. I was determined to find a way to enjoy the sun, so I began looking for different options. (If you missed it, I wrote about why you should consider sun protective clothing.)

proposed sunscreen regulations from the FDA

It seems I wasn’t alone in exploring sunscreen options: in February, the FDA proposed new sunscreen regulations. The 72-page proposal calls for more research into certain ingredients, clearer labels for consumers, and additional broad-spectrum coverage. The FDA’s goal? Make over-the-counter sunscreens safer and more effective.

Here’s a quick look  at what the FDA proposes for new sunscreen regulations:

  • Reconsider and research active ingredients: Of the 16 current active ingredients, only two—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—are “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE). Two are not GRASE, and the 12 remaining require additional testing.
  • Change SPF Factor: Raise the max SPF level from 50 to 60.
  • Broad Spectrum Protection: Require sunscreens over SPF 15 to protect against UVA/UVB rays; UVA protection must increase as SPF level increases.
  • Rethink labels: Put active ingredients on the front of labels; include additional warnings about skin cancer and skin aging; more transparent info about SPF, broad spectrum and water resistance.
  • Eliminate misleading claims: Sunscreens can’t claim to be “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” or “sunblock.”
  • Eliminate combination products: No sunscreens with insect repellent.

What dermatologists think about these proposals

Dermatologist Dr. Brooke Bair thinks the proposed sunscreen regulations could help consumers better protect themselves and understand what to look for in a sunscreen.

“I think more oversight in this industry is a huge leap in the right direction,” says Dr. Bair. “When educating my patients about ingredients to look for, I explain that they have to pick up the bottle and read the back for the ‘active ingredients.’ One of the new proposals is for the ingredients to be placed on the front of the bottle. It may seem like minutia, but I think this will be incredibly helpful.”

So what do these proposed sunscreen regulations mean for you?

Now, this is all great news in theory, but what does it mean for you? Quick recap—there are two types of sunscreens, chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin and are designed to block the sun’s rays. The rays are converted into heat and then released from the body. Active ingredients include avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone. These are some of the chemicals the FDA is looking to research further.  According to the FDA, oxybenzone, in particular, is “absorbed through the skin to a greater extent than previously understood and can lead to significant systemic exposure.” Yikes.

Physical or mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, act as a physical barrier, blocking and reflecting the rays. The active ingredients in most physical sunscreens are titanium oxide and zinc dioxide. These are the only two ingredients the FDA is willing to recognize as generally safe and effective, or “GRASE.” These sunscreens can be thick and are usually harder to rub in. (And wash off!)

If you have sensitive skin or are worried about potential irritants in your sunscreen, do your research. I’ve spent hours poring over the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Annual Sunscreen Guide, researching ingredients and the highest-rated brands. They rate sunscreens based on the active ingredients, UVA/UVB protection, and any other health concerns. (They use a scale of 1-10; the lower the score, the better.) I was shocked to see how many big-name sunscreens ranked poorly—it was eye opening. If further research shows that the other 12 active ingredients are considered harmful, many existing sunscreens may have to make some changes.

“I have always been a fan of the chemical-free, mineral-based sunscreens containing zinc or titanium, and have been recommending them for years,” says Dr. Bair. “Products that contain only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe for people with sensitive skin, safe for use in children, and have not been shown to cause sunscreen allergies.”

Aside from the ingredients, look at what your sunscreen claims to do—does it offer enough protection?

“I recommend an SPF 50 sunscreen with Environmental Protection Technology that shields skin from the five main causes of damage that accelerate signs of aging,” says Dr. Howard Murad. This includes protection against blue light, pollution, infrared radiation, and UVA/UVB rays. Read the labels and don’t forget to reapply! Even sunscreens claiming to be waterproof or water-resistant need to be reapplied frequently—especially if you’re sweating or in and out of the water.

The FDA won’t make a final decision on the proposed sunscreen regulations until November 26, 2019. Until then, the FDA hopes experts will chime in, since they are actively “seeking public comment on the proposed rule and will consider comments provided as the agency works towards developing a final rule.” If the proposal does pass, there will be a several year grace period before “full compliance.”

I look forward to seeing more research into the different active ingredients and what decisions the FDA ultimately makes. I think more information and straightforward labels will make it easier to understand what we’re slathering all over our bodies.

So, stay tuned! In the meantime, I’ll stick to physical sunscreens knowing I won’t have to make any changes if the proposal does pass. I’ll also continue to talk incessantly about sun protection. I’m so fun at parties and on vacation!

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About Rachel LaBud

Rachel graduated from the University of Illinois with a BS in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in English Literature. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, she’s an Air Force wife which means “home” is now wherever the military sends her. She was lucky enough to spend three years in Italy where she fell in love with hiking, the outdoors, and Italian coffee. Stress and frequent deployments led her to strength training and group fitness classes, which she credits with keeping her healthy, fit, and sane. She played soccer and swam competitively growing up and thanks sports for giving her a competitive streak, lifelong best friends, and chlorine-damaged hair.