Deceptive Sunscreen Marketing Gets FDA Attention

As Memorial Day Weekend approaches, you’ll likely find yourself standing in the sunblock isle of your local pharmacy in preparation for barbecues, patio parties and picnics. But how do you choose the product that’s best for you and your family? If you usually feel lost in a sea of SPF numbers and buzzwords like “waterproof”, you’re not alone; the FDA has been working to crack down on sunscreen labeling for years in an effort to empower the public to make informed decisions about sun protection.

Finally, after several years of back-and-forth between regulators, watchdog agencies and companies, the FDA successfully passed new federal requirements last December, which ban potentially misleading terms like “waterproof” and require that all sunblock products provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

A recent survey of 1,400 sunscreen products conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that most products currently on the market meet the new requirements. While this is certainly a major step in the right direction, the regulations do not cover the long-disputed use of SPF ratings over 50, which many experts consider misleading.

Because consumers (quite reasonably) expect that SPF ratings of 100 indicate twice the protection of SPF 50, experts fear that people develop a false sense of security when using such products, leading them to stay in the sun without reapplication long after the effectiveness of the sunblock has worn off. In actuality, there is little difference between SPF 50 and anything above – while an SPF 50 product might protect against 97 percent of harmful rays, an SPF 100 product might block 98.5 percent — nowhere near a 50% improvement.

“The high SPF numbers are just a gimmick,” said Marianne Berwick, professor of epidemiology at the University of New Mexico. “Most people really don’t need more than an SPF 30 and they should reapply it every couple of hours.”

The FDA agrees that such labeling is deceptive, and in 2011 proposed a cap of SPF ratings at 50, saying at the time: “labeling a product with a specific SPF value higher than 50 would be misleading to the consumer…there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users.”

But, due to push-back from the companies that produce sunscreen (including Johnson & Johnson), which insist that higher SPF products provide measurable benefits, the FDA says it is still reviewing studies and comments, and that there is currently no deadline to finalize a cap on SPF ratings.

So how long will the public have to wait for such a crackdown? Well, it depends how long it takes to sort through concerns from both consumers and corporations, but considering that the FDA first announced its intent to draft sunscreen rules in 1978, didn’t publish them until 1999, and didn’t pass new regulations until just a few months ago, we’re thinking it could be a while. In the meantime, here is a helpful article about how to navigate the sunscreen isle and ensure you’re making the best possible selection before heading out to enjoy the summer sunshine.