On February 21, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new proposal on sunscreen safety that will likely overhaul the entire sunscreen industry. No, we're not exaggerating. Despite repeated calls for action from watchdog organizations, most prominently the Environmental Working Group, the FDA hasn't updated its stance on sunscreen safety in more than 40 years. Even more shocking are the details of the proposal: Of the 16 different active ingredients in sunscreens currently on the market, the FDA deemed only two as being safe to use: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
What's more, the proposal states that there's not enough scientific data on 12 of the ingredients to determine whether they're safe or harmful for humans. If you're counting, that leaves two ingredients the FDA states are not safe for use in sunscreen products: PABA and trolamine salicylate. However, you generally don't need to worry about either of these.
"To our knowledge, there are no sunscreens currently on the market that contain the two active ingredients that we are proposing to be not generally recognized as safe," said Theresa Michele, director of the FDA's division of nonprescription drug products (DNDP), during a media briefing."There are many sunscreens on the market using the 12 ingredients that we’re requesting additional data on… We'll just have to wait and see to determine where the safety data are for these ingredients going forward."
The two ingredients that are safe, however, are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. "Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals that act as physical blockers," explains New York City-based dermatologist Sejal Shah. "Unlike chemical sunscreen ingredients, they sit on the surface of the skin and reflect ultraviolet rays."
One of those 12 undetermined ingredients is oxybenzone. Last year, the state of Hawaii went so far as to legally ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they can cause major damage to coral reefs.
Other highlights of the proposal include new sunscreen label requirements that will list the active ingredients on the front of the package, additional and "rigorous assessment" of all active chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market, and a cap on SPF at 60+. The FDA will also be seeking out industry experts, such as dermatologists and cosmetic chemists, who might be able to provide more information on those 12 ingredients.