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Andy Larsen: Mike Lee and AOC are working together on an issue — sunscreen. What?

The Republican and Democrat are pushing back against a hardline FDA position on commercial sunblocks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A swimmer, hopefully covered with sunscreen, cools off in the pool at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Friday, July 8, 2022.

It’s not every day you get Utah Sen. Mike Lee and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aligned on an issue.

But that’s exactly what we have in the case of ... sunscreen. You see, AOC is pushing Congress to act on the way the U.S. regulates sunscreen, to make it more like the sunscreen approval process in the rest of the world. Lee, interestingly, agrees — probably because he sees the proposed move as deregulation, though it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There’s a lot more than meets the eye here. To be honest, I audibly gasped multiple times while researching this story, as there’s so much about sunscreen I didn’t know, and so much sunscreen drama I didn’t expect. Let’s get to it.

The history

Sunscreens work pretty simply: they contain a filter, or multiple filters, that work to prevent the sun’s rays from fully interacting with your skin. The ancient Greeks used olive oil as their chosen sunscreen filter, the ancient Egyptians used ground-up rice and jasmine. It turns out that modern sunscreens only started being made in 1946. Naturally, we’ve gotten better at what filters to use since then.

Now, there are two categories of filters. Physical filters, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, physically scatter the light your skin receives from the sun. You probably can recognize sunscreens with these filters by the white chalky powder sometimes left before it’s rubbed in all the way. Chemical filters — nearly every other kind of filter on the worldwide market — have a chemical reaction to the ultraviolet light and essentially neutralize it. If you look on the back of your sunscreen bottle, it’ll tell you what filter or filters it’s using. My cheap sunscreen from Kroger uses four different chemical filters mixed together. Cool.

As we’ve rolled into the 21st century, sunscreen scientists have started discovering and making even better chemical filters. These have wild names like Tinosorb A2B or Parsol SLX or Uvasorb HEB, but essentially the deal is that they last longer and work better than the old filters.

Because of this, you can create a sunscreen with less filter and more of the feel-good inactive ingredients you can find in standard lotions and moisturizers. Newer sunscreens feel less greasy or sticky than older ones, and need to be reapplied less often, especially after you leave water. They also block a larger spectrum of UV light, protecting your skin more.

The issue is: the U.S. FDA hasn’t approved any of these newfangled filters. In fact, the agency hasn’t approved a new filter since 1999. (This was my first gasp.)

Cosmetic or drug?

Why not? Because in the 1970s, the FDA essentially decided that sunscreen was under its purview as a drug. And even for over-the-counter drugs, the FDA insists that drugs be heavily tested through years-long scientific studies to make sure they’re safe to use. Frankly, that makes a lot of sense.

But in most other countries, like in the European Union, Australia, Japan, Korea, and so on, they regulate sunscreen as a cosmetic. That’s mostly buyer beware — and if a company is caught selling an unsafe product, then they’ll be sued or charged later.

Is sunscreen a cosmetic or a drug? Honestly, it’s both. It’s a cosmetic because people use it to keep their skin looking fresh and pretty. And it’s a drug because people use it to prevent melanomas and other kinds of skin cancer, along with sunburn. The FDA’s claim of “Hey, it’s at least partially a drug, we should control it” is not unreasonable.

So AOC isn’t actually asking that the FDA stop regulating sunscreen. Instead, she’s asking them to start approving more modern filters so we can get the nearly universally beloved newer sunscreens too.

The problem is that FDA regulators hate it when you ask them to do this.

In 2014, successful lobbying by the sunscreen industry led Congress to pass, and Barack Obama to sign into law, something called the Sunscreen Innovation Act, which asked the FDA to finally rule on eight of the newfangled sunscreen filters it had avoided opining on for decades. The agency did rule: the FDA rejected them all.

It rejected the filters because, the agency said, there wasn’t enough data on the filters. In particular, regulators wanted more studies that would rule out long-term impacts of the sunscreens, especially when used by pregnant women and children. Again, the FDA’s position on this does make sense. Frankly, who are we all going to blame if a sunscreen turned out to be poisonous? The FDA. An unsafe sunscreen could be a nightmare.

But the sunscreen companies also have a good point, too. They argue that, essentially, “Hey, we currently have a nightmare of our own: 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day in America, and more than two of them die every hour. Some of that is because people don’t apply sunscreen, because U.S. sunscreens are old and terrible. Furthermore, we have a couple of decades of evidence from overseas that people are not dropping dead from the new, good sunscreens. If you let us fix the bad sunscreens, we’ll save lives.”

The FDA’s response was (this time verbatim) “marketing history cannot tell us about associations with long-term effects, such as developing cancer or reproductive problems.” Which, yeah, that’s true.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) If successful, a congressional push to update FDA regulations of commercial sunscreens may lead to a wider variety of the skin protecting products. Here, Rock Leland, 3, his skin largely covered from the sun, reacts as he stands in the middle of a circle of water jets at South Jordan's Heritage Park splash pad, June 28, 2023.

The threat

Here’s gasp No. 2, though — and this is the part you’ll probably not find in other recent news reports about this month’s sunscreen kerfuffle.

The FDA has now gone down this line of thinking far enough that, in fact, it is threatening to pull “generally recognized as safe and effective” approval for all currently approved chemical filters, even the ones used in sunscreens that have been on the market since the 1980s. In other words, the only sunscreens legally available in the U.S. would be the chalky zinc oxide or titanium dioxide ones. Whoa! Yikes!

Again, the rationale makes some sense. It goes like this: people are using more sunscreen than they used to. They didn’t get very much safety data on the old sunscreen filters back then. And there’s research that finds some of the chemicals from sunscreen filter through the skin and end up in the body. The FDA is asking the sunscreen companies to come up with more data to support that these old sunscreens are definitely safe.

The sunscreen companies have honestly just about had it with the FDA by now. There are companies that have tried to get the FDA to approve a new filter for for 21 years now, responding with study after study, with no luck. And now the FDA wants the companies to go back to basics and commission more years-long studies on the old sunscreens, too, that have been in use for 50 years? Frankly, the sunscreen industry just doesn’t have big enough profit margins to care that much, especially given the FDA’s history of saying no.

This is where some larger body just needs to step in and settle this. Perhaps, say, a congressional body.

In the end, it’s my belief that the ongoing public health concern of skin cancer suffering and death is larger — and significantly larger — than the minute risk that decades-old sunscreens used by hundreds of millions of people are going to be found on further review substantially dangerous enough to cause more suffering and death than the problem they’re being used for.

Look, I am not typically pro-corporation over the FDA. Corporations will say and do all sorts of things for profit over responsibility. The FDA scientists are truly excellent. But in this case, given the new sunscreens’ worldwide use, the overwhelming likelihood is that they’re safe. If the FDA believes they are unsafe, I think they have the burden of proof to show that.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com

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