At 36, I am just old enough to remember when sunscreen wasn’t a big deal. My mom, despite being among the palest people alive, does not remember bringing it on our earliest vacations, or hearing any mention of sun protection by our pediatrician. The first memories I have of sunscreen are from the day camp that my brother and I attended in the 1990s, where we spent every day on a playground in the direct Georgia sun but were prompted to slather it on only once every two weeks, when we were bused to a community pool. On those days, mom dropped an ancient bottle of Coppertone, expiration date unknown, into my backpack, where I usually left it. In 2000, I started high school, just in time for the golden age of the tanning bed.
The preponderance of babies in rashguards and bucket hats that you now see at the beach shows how much has changed, and how quickly. Skyrocketing skin-cancer rates, specifically for fair-skinned people, among whom the disease is more prevalent, have scared plenty of people into rethinking their tans, as has the realization that sun exposure causes—horror of horrors—wrinkles and other visible signs of aging. Now SPF is ubiquitous. You can find it in lotions, sprays, gels, oils, powders, and implements that look like grade-school glue sticks, as well as infused into skin-care products, lip balms, makeup, and clothing. Sun care has its own aisle at big-box stores, and beauty companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been built from the ground up by offering only products that block ultraviolet rays.
Yet if sun protection, and specifically sunscreen, has become a very big deal in a relatively short amount of time, the UV blockers Americans are slathering on have barely evolved at all. While some of the more expensive U.S. products are better than they used to be in terms of texture and how they look on skin, their active ingredients remain stubbornly unchanged. To make matters worse, we’ve brought this situation on ourselves. Consumers in Europe and Asia are not locked in, as we are, to a small and outmoded set of active ingredients. Simply put: They have better sunscreen than we do. We should have it too.
Forgive me, but in order to understand what’s going on with the sun-protection market, we must briefly discuss chemistry. Sunscreen works by preventing two of the sun’s three types of ultraviolet rays—UVA and UVB—from penetrating your skin and doing cancer-causing damage. The ingredients that counteract those rays are called filters, and for the general public, they’re divided into two categories: physical and chemical. (Don’t be fooled by “natural” marketing—the active ingredients in both groups are synthetic chemicals.) Physical—a.k.a. mineral—sunscreens block both UVA and UVB rays, and tend to leave a residue that makes even pale people look like they’re doing some additional Casper the Friendly Ghost cosplay. Chemical filters, which absorb either UVA or UVB rays, are mixed together to create sunscreens that provide full-spectrum protection; they usually feel a bit oily or greasy.
In the U.S., sunscreen is regulated as an over-the-counter drug, which means that the FDA considers all filters, physical or chemical, to be active ingredients that must be evaluated and approved individually before they can be marketed. In general, this type of regulatory regime works out pretty well for the American public: cheap, off-brand anti-inflammatories, allergy medications, or cough syrups contain active ingredients that have been tested for efficacy and safety in just this way. The same is true for sunscreens. Whether you buy yours at Dollar General or Sephora, it will contain at least one FDA-approved UV filter in a clearly marked concentration.
The government currently allows 17 filters in American sunscreens, nine of which are rarely used, because they have undesirable side effects or because cosmetic chemists find them difficult to blend into the kinds of products that people like. The eight that you will find in the products at your local drugstore still leave something to be desired. “The ingredients that we have to work with can cause some challenges in creating a really elegant formula,” Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist who teaches at the University of Toledo, told me. That’s especially true when filters are used in the concentrations necessary for high SPFs, she said. Maximum protection can sometimes mean maximum chalkiness or oiliness, although a skilled formulator will try to counteract these effects with tweaks to the formula or manufacturing process.
A sunscreen that has an unpleasant texture or turns your skin a strange color might be tolerable for a one-off excursion to the beach or an afternoon in the cheap seats at a baseball game, but it wouldn’t exactly encourage thorough and repeated applications of a sunscreen, which is necessary no matter which product you use. For everyday use, which is widely recommended by dermatologists, the obstacles are even harder to clear, from a formulation standpoint: Oily products don’t play nice with makeup, while chalky products look wild on pretty much everyone, especially people with darker skin tones. Adam Friedman, a dermatologist at George Washington University, told me such concerns are a huge obstacle for his patients. “You can have the best filter in the world,” he said. “If the vehicle in which that ingredient resides is visibly unacceptable or physically unacceptable in terms of application, it doesn’t matter.”
For many people, frustration with sunscreen means they don’t wear it as much as they should. For others, it means looking beyond the country’s shores for better products. In Europe, Australia, and much of Asia, sunscreens are regulated as cosmetics or health-bolstering goods, with simpler efficacy and safety standards than those in the U.S. In those markets, several dozen active ingredients are available for use in sunscreens, including some developed in the past decade that have intriguing properties. The allure of these new technologies has drawn Americans to scour the internet for supply lines that skirt FDA notice, which often means buying sunscreen through third-party sellers on Amazon. (The booming popularity of Korean beauty products in the U.S. has only added to this fervor.) A few international sunscreen products have recently become cult favorites among U.S. beauty fiends, including one that feels like a skin-care product and is marketed as a “watery essence” by Bioré, a Japanese company known to Americans mostly for producing the little paper strips that rip the gunk out of your pores.
Bioré markets some of its products in the U.S., but its ultra-popular facial sunscreen contains bemotrizinol, a chemical filter that’s popular overseas but has not yet been approved in the U.S. The substance is on a short list of those that Dobos told me have the strongest case for FDA approval—it’s widely used around the world and very effective at absorbing UV rays. Another ingredient at the top of her list is bisoctrizole, a favorite in Europe, which she said degrades more slowly in sunlight, is less readily absorbed by the wearer’s skin, and helps stabilize other UV filters when mixed with them, potentially improving their efficacy. Wearers don’t need to reapply it as often in order to remain protected, and they may not worry as much about the putative risks of carrying chemical filters in their bloodstream. (None of the experts I spoke with said there is any demonstrated danger from using standard products as directed. You probably shouldn’t eat your sunscreen, though.)
Dobos emphasized to me that she thinks the FDA’s strict regulation of sunscreen products is generally beneficial to the American public, but that the agency’s slow progress on new ingredients doesn’t match the urgency of skin cancer’s threat to public health. In formal statements and position papers, doctors and cancer-prevention advocates express considerable interest in bringing new sunscreen ingredients to the American market, but not a lot of optimism that any will be available soon. The FDA hasn’t added a new active ingredient to its sunscreen monograph—the document that details what is legally allowed in products marketed in the U.S.—in decades. The process for doing this is so onerous that L’Oreal, a French company, chose to go through a separate authorization process to get one of its sunscreen ingredients onto the consumer market in 2006—which meant that only a few specific beauty products containing that ingredient could be marketed legally.
In 2014, Congress passed a law attempting to speed access to sunscreen ingredients that have been in wide use in other countries for years, but it hasn’t really worked. “The FDA was supposed to be fast-tracking these ingredients for approval, because we have the safety data and safe history of usage from the European Union,” Dobos said. “But it seems to continually be stalled.” According to Courtney Rhodes, a spokesperson for the FDA, manufacturers have submitted eight new active ingredients for consideration. The agency has asked them to provide additional data in support of those applications, but none of them has yet satisfied the agency’s requirements.
“In the medical community, there is a significant frustration about the lack of availability of some of the sunscreen active ingredients,” Henry Lim, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health, in Michigan, told me. The more filters are available to formulators, the more they can be mixed and matched in new ways, which stands to improve not just the efficacy of the final product, but how it feels and looks on your skin, and how easy it is to apply. On a very real level, making sunscreen less onerous to use can make it more effective. “The best sunscreen is going to be the one you’re going to use often and according to the directions,” Dobos said. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and by one estimate, one in five Americans will develop it in their lifetime.
For many dermatologists, these lengthy regulatory battles and widespread issues with regular usage also underline a common recommendation that tends to go unheard by patients: Sunscreen is great, and sunscreen from Europe, Australia, and Asia may be better, but even the best, most cutting-edge SPF lotion is just one part of keeping your skin healthy. Floppy hats, big beach umbrellas, or loose, high-coverage clothing might not be your ideal beach look while you’re young, but if you can mostly cover up and stick to the shade, your elderly self will thank you.