After months of persuasion, I have finally succeeded in helping my husband establish a daily sunscreen routine. When I notice traces of white cream in his dark beard, I think to myself, “We’re making progress.” Some Americans, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have decided to take matters into their own hands to avoid the white cast, heaviness, and greasiness often associated with sunscreen products in U.S. drugstores. They have turned to sunscreens manufactured abroad, specifically Asian brands like Bioré and Beauty of Joseon that use active ingredients not yet approved for use in the United States.
While sunscreen is classified as a cosmetic in skin-care hubs like South Korea, Japan, and the European Union, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. Any sunscreen product marketed to American consumers must receive FDA approval. Since sunscreen makes claims about preventing sunburn, reducing the risk of skin cancer, and preventing premature skin aging, it is regulated as an over-the-counter drug.
The FDA has not approved any new active ingredients for use in sunscreens for over two decades, leading many to believe that the United States lags behind the rest of the world in sunscreen development. In contrast, skin-care influencers on platforms like TikTok and Instagram constantly rave about innovative new products that are not available in American stores. The FDA has approved 14 sunscreen filters, while the European Union has approved over 30.
Frustrated by the lack of exciting sun protection options in the U.S., skincare-conscious Americans often blame the FDA for the delay in approving new active ingredients. However, Ocasio-Cortez believes that the agency is not entirely at fault. She acknowledges that Americans have access to sunscreen and proposes exploring alternative avenues to break through the standstill. Congress has initiated a preliminary process to examine improvements to the approval procedure, such as encouraging sunscreen filter manufacturers to conduct the necessary research and development to submit drug information to the FDA for approval.
Ocasio-Cortez emphasizes the importance of maintaining safety standards while advocating for more options for consumers. Many sunscreen ingredients that have been used in foreign-made sunscreens for years are still awaiting FDA approval. Compounds like amiloxate, enzacamene, and octyl triazone have been stuck in the FDA regulatory pipeline since 2003.
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act into law, giving the FDA five years to approve or deny the use of new sunscreen ingredients. However, the FDA only reaffirmed the safety of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in mineral sunscreens in 2019, requesting more information on 12 other ingredients. As long as the FDA defers a final decision, these products remain eligible for use on the market.
The CARES Act in 2020 brought changes to the approval process for over-the-counter drugs. Under the new procedure, the FDA requested more information from manufacturers on new sunscreen filters, effectively shifting the responsibility back to the manufacturers without outright denying approval. The 14 chemicals moved up from 2019 to 2020 to meet the requirements of the CARES Act are the only ones allowed for use at present.
The FDA stated that it is committed to facilitating the marketing of sunscreen products that include additional over-the-counter sunscreen active ingredients. However, the agency relies on the industry to submit the necessary data for safety and effectiveness determinations.
Although skin cancer remains the most common type of cancer in the United States, Dr. Steven Q. Wang of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s photobiology committee believes that the current rates are a result of the past 50 years and not a lack of new sunscreen filters. He emphasizes that sunscreen is just one part of comprehensive sun protection, which also includes avoiding sunlight during intense hours, seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing. U.S. sunscreen manufacturers have made significant advancements in creating superior sunscreens using existing UV filters.
While there are various potential solutions, the responsibility to provide the best sun protection to Americans lies with Congress. Ocasio-Cortez states that there hasn’t been much attention given to this issue in Congress since the signing of the Sunscreen Innovation Act. However, she believes that there is a growing awareness among everyday people, which she hopes will create the necessary political momentum for change.
On social media, influencers have been vocal about sunscreens, creating their own guidelines for use and testing different brands to find the best ones. New targeted brands like Black Girl Sunscreen are also gaining popularity. Americans are branching out and exploring different sunscreen options.
Ocasio-Cortez sees this growing awareness and interest as an opportunity to drive political and cultural momentum for change. She believes that all people, regardless of political affiliation, need better sunscreen options.