If you’re vacationing overseas, be it on the French Riviera or a beach in New Zealand or Australia, there are things you can buy abroad that you can’t find in the U.S.
I’m not talking about exotic wines… or even that nifty handbag or piece of pottery.
Believe it or not, it’s possible that the most valuable thing you could pick up abroad is some sun protection!
In fact, many experts say that there are certain kinds of sunscreens that are much more effective at doing their job… but you can’t find them here in the U.S.
It turns out that far too many of the brands that our stores devote aisle after aisle to contain dangerous ingredients — ones that won’t protect your skin and can even promote the skin cancer that they claim to help prevent.
And while the FDA continues to let those risky concoctions be sold, it won’t lift a finger to get some better products on the shelf.
So, if you’ve been waiting for what seems like forever to spend a day in the sun at the beach, park, or even your own backyard, you need to know if that bottle of sunscreen is something that’s going to do more harm than good — before you reach for it.
Saving your skin
While it might seem like buying a sunscreen is simply a matter of choosing the kind you need – such as a waterproof formula for a day at the pool, one for the kids or grandkids, or a brand that says it’s especially for your face — it turns out that most are duds!
One of the big problems with most sunscreens sold in the U.S. is that while they can protect you from getting a burn due to UVB exposure, you’re not being shielded from UVA rays. Those are the ones that penetrate deep into your skin, resulting in aging, damaged DNA, and skin cancer.
Unlike overseas brands, there are just a handful of ingredients that can be sold in America right now that also provide UVA protection: zinc oxide (think lifeguard nose!), titanium dioxide (said to only be “moderately effective”), and avobenzone. And as far as the last ingredient goes, its protection doesn’t last very long in the sun unless it’s mixed with other chemicals, some of which you don’t want to slather on your skin!
And believe it or not, the FDA considers sunscreens to be drugs. But although it manages to approve dozens of risky pharmaceuticals every year, it’s somehow been difficult for the agency to OK a new sunscreen.
Eight alternative formulas have been languishing at FDA headquarters awaiting a green light, some for a decade or longer, despite the fact that their ingredients have been sold in other countries for years.
As one dermatology professor put it, they’re used by “tens of millions of people all over the world.”
Six years ago, the agency promised that it would fast-track its review process. Well, guess what? That fast train must have gotten derailed — because two years later, nothing had changed.
Yet another attempt was made to get the beach ball rolling, this time with legislation dubbed the “Sunscreen Innovation Act” that mandated the FDA do something within a six-month time frame. And it did — by rejecting all eight, saying that it didn’t have enough information about them!
And that leaves us with some pretty slim pickins’.
The Environmental Working Group has been analyzing sunscreen products for years now, and it’s developed a rating system so that you can see if your brand contains any dangerous ingredients.
Some that are listed as “high” in the “health concerns” category include the biggest brand names on the shelf — for example, Coppertone’s Water Babies contains retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that can accelerate the growth of skin cancer, and oxybenzone, a chemical that can mess with your hormones.
Then there’s Banana Boat Kids Continuous Spray Sunscreen, with an SPF (or sun protection factor) of 100! The EWG gave that a “10,” its very worst rating, due to the presence of oxybenzone, the inhalation risk involved in a spray, and the fact that its whopping SPF doesn’t really mean that it will protect against a burn for anywhere near that long.
But a good safety rating doesn’t mean that you’re getting full UV protection – even if the brand says that it’s “broad-spectrum” and its SPF number is sky high, like the one advertised for Banana Boat.
As the EWG puts it, “Americans are being shortchanged.”
Considering the fact that sunscreen sales (around $18 billion!) in the U.S. have skyrocketed right along with the rates of skin cancer, I would say that we certainly are.
Here’s the bottom line: If you want true UVB/UVA protection, you’ll probably have to resort to a brand that contains zinc oxide. You can also check out the EWG’s report and sunscreen ratings by going to ewg.org/sunscreen.
But if you’re planning a trip to a foreign destination, bringing home some sunscreen might be the most useful souvenir of all!
“New chemicals that could help prevent skin cancer are languishing in FDA purgatory” Iva Dixit, April 12, 2018, Newsweek, newsweek.com