Jun 3, 2024 - Health

Why Americans are buying European sunscreen

Illustration of a man with a sunburned back with lighter skin in the shape of the EU flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing number of Americans are questioning the safety and efficacy of U.S. sunscreens — and they have reason to be concerned.

Why it matters: Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country, and protection against sun damage is key to reducing risk.

The big picture: Compared to the U.S., Europe has more approved active sunscreen ingredients, says Henry Lim, dermatologist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

  • Sunscreens should have broad spectrum protection, which means they protect against both UVA rays (often associated with skin cancer and skin aging) and UVB exposure (responsible for sunburn).

Zoom in: The sunscreens in Europe currently offer better protection from UVA radiation compared to those in the U.S. because of better testing methods, Lim says.

What they're saying: "Based on currently available data, it's safe to continue to use organic [chemical] sunscreen and mineral sunscreen" that's approved by the FDA, Lim says.

Yes, but: New FDA research shows that some active ingredients in U.S. sunscreens get absorbed into the bloodstream.

  • "But does it truly mean that it is harmful? That data is very controversial at the moment," Lim says.

Between the lines: Europe, Australia and much of Asia treat sunscreen as a cosmetic, while the FDA regulates it as an over-the-counter drug, which requires more time to evaluate.

  • The FDA hasn't approved a new UV filter for sunscreen in more than 20 years.

Newer sunscreen ingredients available elsewhere include bemotrizinol, bisoctrizole, DHHB and octyl triazone — filters more efficient at absorbing UV rays and less likely to penetrate skin or cause allergic reactions than U.S.-approved ones, says cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong, who lives in Australia.

What we're watching: American sunscreens may be starting to catch up. Bemotrizinol could be approved by the FDA "hopefully" this year, Lim says.

  • FDA spokesperson Cherie Duvall-Jones says, "While one manufacturer is working with the FDA to generate the requested data for bemotrizinol," the agency can't discuss the drug's status.
  • There hasn't been data submitted for the evaluation of other active sunscreen ingredients.

Read more: What to ask before you buy sunscreen

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