When it comes to skincare, we live in an age of quick fixes, from serums that promise to plump wrinkles on contact to injections that can erase a pimple within 24 hours. But there are some things that still take time. Officially defining, once and for all, how U.S. sunscreen makers must test and label their products is, apparently, one of those things. The FDA has been attempting to finalize a monograph, or set of rules, governing UVA and UVB sunscreens since 1978. Over three decades, there have been countless hearings, scores of papers and more than a few tentative final agreements. (A monograph was published in 1999, but it failed to cover the issue of UVA.) The obstacles: everything from disagreements over how to measure sunscreen efficacy to plain old red tape. In recent years, however, dermatologists, lawmakers and even skincare companies have come to the conclusion that current sunscreen labeling is inadequate, putting the public at risk. “My patients are not as protected as they think they are,” says Washington, D.C., dermatologist Sandra Read, “and they really don’t have the information they need to make choices regarding safe products.” Happily, says FDA press officer Rita Chappelle, there’s finally “a light at the end of the tunnel.” Chappelle says the agency is planning to finalize a monograph by May, which means that reformulated, repackaged sunscreens should be on shelves in time for summer 2011. Here, a look at what to expect.
STAR SYSTEM Currently the only way U.S. manufacturers measure sun protection is with sun protection factor (SPF), a number that represents how well a product defends against UVB light, rays that can cause sunburn and lead to skin cancer. Under the new rules, protection from UVA—rays that cause wrinkles and, like UVB, can lead to skin cancer—will also be taken into account. While many sunscreens on the market contain UVA blockers, consumers have no way of knowing how much UVA protection any given product provides. “We are the only major industrialized nation that does not have UVA rating on our sunscreen,” points out Detroit physician Henry Lim, chairman of the American Academy of Dermatology’s Council on Science and Research. “It’s important to see.”
Perhaps taking its cue from restaurant critics, the FDA will adopt a system that rates the level of UVA protection a product offers by assigning it one to four stars. “The star system is a compromise to show a quantitative gradation without confusing people with another number,” says Darrell S. Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
NUMBERS GAME As consumers have become, well, consumed with worry over the damage inflicted by sunlight, sun-care companies have offered products with higher and higher SPF. The result for beachgoers—not to mention some dermatologists—has been confusion. Do we really need SPF 70 when just a few years ago SPF 30 was considered the gold standard? “You can look at it either way,” says Rigel. “You can say SPF 70 is three times better than SPF 30 because it’s letting in one percent instead of 3 percent [of UVB rays], or you can say it’s only slightly better because the difference between 99 percent and 97 percent is not much.”