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Why the U.S. doesn’t have the best sunscreens in the world

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A woman in a straw hat applies white sunscreen to her back at the beach.

People may be less likely to use sunscreen when it feels sticky, goopy or greasy, or leaves a white cast. Mykola Sosiukin/Getty Images

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Summer is here, and so is the season for sunscreens. But sunblock in the U.S. can make a person’s skin feel oily or look milky, and that has a direct influence on consumer shopping habits.

Amanda Mull, a staff writer at The Atlantic, recently wrote about why other countries have better sunscreen. Filters, the ingredients that protect people from ultraviolet rays, are limited and not as advanced in the United States compared to formulas manufactured in Europe or Asia, Mull said. 

“Marketplace” host Amy Scott spoke with Mull to find out just how far behind the U.S. is in terms of UV-blocking technology and how it affects people’s use of sunscreen. 

Amanda Mull: Our sunscreens in the United States are a little bit less technologically advanced than some of what people have overseas. The [Food and Drug Administration] has not approved a new filter ingredient for broad use in the United States since the 1990s. In Europe, Asia and Australia, they have, you know, almost double the filters available for cosmetic chemists that we have. And these other filters are just a little bit easier to formulate into what is often called in the business “aesthetically elegant products.” And we’re not allowed to have them right now.

Amy Scott: Something that people don’t mind putting on.

Mull: Yes, things that feel good, things that are invisible on the skin, things that basically act like more of a skin care product than like a sunscreen. And I think a lot of people think of those things separately because the experience of using them is a little bit different.

Scott: So why has the FDA been slow to approve these other filters? Are there safety concerns about these chemicals?

Mull: Based on the people who I talked to, the safety concerns are not significant. Sunscreen is regulated by the FDA as an over the counter drug, which means that the active ingredients in it have to be deemed generally — let me see if I can remember the acronym — generally [recognized] as safe and effective, GRASE. And versus —

Scott: It’s a graceful acronym, you might say. 

Mull: Yes. Once these ingredients are approved, they’re not proprietary. They’re available for any manufacturer to use. So doing the amount of testing that the FDA requires for this approval is really expensive and really, really time consuming. And they’re relying on private companies to do that. You’ve got companies on the one hand who are like, “We don’t want to do this. We have a lot of real-world safety data, because a lot of these products have been approved and in use in other countries, including in the European Union, for 10-plus years.” But it’s not like exactly the kind of evidence that the FDA wants. And it’s just sort of like this endless back and forth, where none of the structures set up to move this forward are working very well because of the specific type of problem it is.

Scott: And yet, as you report, Americans are buying these products. How are people getting them? Is it legal to do so?

Mull: It is sort of a gray area. The internet, in its vast capacity to provide products to people, has given Americans opportunities to both learn about these products and to buy them. One that’s particularly popular is a Bioré sunscreen that feels like a skin care serum. I think I bought my tube for like $12 a couple of years ago. And it’s available from third-party sellers on Amazon. It’s the same, you know, multinational cosmetics company that makes the pore strips that you rip out all the gunk from your nose.

Scott: Oh, yes. 

Mull: So these are companies that operate in the United States and market products in the United States. But there’s just this category of products that they sell in many, many other countries that they can’t sell here.

Scott: Do you have a sense that this is going to change? I mean, is the FDA catching on to the demand for these products and the need, right? Because as you write, skin cancer is the leading type of cancer in this country.

Mull: Right, right. You know, all of the experts that I spoke to really felt wholeheartedly that if we had better sunscreens and more enjoyable sunscreens to use, then we could help solve that behavioral aspect of sunscreen usage. But I don’t think that there’s like a great deal of optimism that the FDA will act with any particular urgency in the near future. In 2014, Congress passed an act that was intended to specifically speed along the FDA’s evaluation of these ingredients. But it didn’t change the data requirements at all for how these get GRASE-approved. The experts I spoke with said that they just feel like the FDA is not addressing skin cancer as the public health threat that they believe it is, and that it seems to be by the numbers. So there’s just the sort of stagnation I think at hand here.

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