I have mixed feelings about the new rules the FDA has announced for sunscreen products. I welcome the prospect of being able to select a product more easily. But is that really the FDA’s purpose, to screen sunscreen and block sunblocks?
Saturday afternoon, it occurred to me that I needed to pack sunscreen and insect repellant for my son to take to Boy Scout camp the next day. A few years ago, I had found a product that combined the two in one spray, and I hoped to find one like that for him to take. At WalMart, I surveyed the shelves and shelves of sunscreen products (I think only shampoo and cosmetics get more space for a single category of product). But among the dozens and dozens of varieties, I found not one that hinted at repelling insects.
When I had bought sunscreen for my older son when he was little, I had to decide between SPF 30 and SPF 50, the latter being marketed primarily for babies. Now I found products advertising SPF values of 80 and higher. Whose skin, I wondered, is so fair that they need more protection than a baby? Obviously the way sunscreen is marketed has changed a bit since I last took a good look at the product offerings.
I could choose between different modes of application, of course, as well as different sizes. But within the spray cans, even within a single brand, I was at a loss as to what made one product significantly different from another. I don’t typically take my reading glasses with me when I go shopping, and my bifocals no longer help much when reading small print. I carry a wallet-sized magnifying “glass” (actually it’s plastic, and very handy) in my purse, but I really didn’t feel like trying to read a bunch of labels. I finally picked a product, but I don’t remember what or how.
If the FDA’s rules make it easier next summer (when they go into effect) to pick a sunscreen, that will be nice. But I suspect the sunscreen makers will just find new ways to try to differentiate their products. More importantly, is the FDA really making consumers any safer with the new rules?
I think it makes sense to have a government agency that is concerned with the safety of products we consume. I read Upton Sinclair’s disturbing novel The Jungle when I was in eighth grade, and I’m not sure which was worse, to read about how sausages were made or about the adulterated milk that poor children were drinking. (I didn’t eat much sausage at that age, but I drank a lot of milk.) Sinclair may not have been happy that the primary result of his novel was improved food safety (he wanted to focus on the plight of the workers), but most consumers today are no doubt glad that they can – for the most part – have confidence that what they eat won’t make them sick.
I hadn’t realized until this week, though, that the FDA also concerns itself with products that neither go in our mouths nor are prescription drugs. Do they regulate everything in the health and beauty section of the store, I wonder? I can see that “consuming” products could be stretched to include using them on our skin, since many chemicals can be absorbed into the body that way. And if sunscreen had chemicals in it that might be harmful to have on one’s body, it would make sense for the FDA to protect us from them.
But as far as I can tell, the rules have nothing to do with whether the sunscreen is safe to use. It’s all about whether people are mistakenly under the impression that the products provide a level of protection against skin cancer, beyond what they really do. The word “sunblock” will be blocked, along with “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” as these suggest a level of protection that the product can’t provide. Only products that protect against UVB and UVA rays will be allowed to claim “broad spectrum” protection.
It’s not that I want manufacturers to be able to make false claims and get away with it. It just seems that the more government agencies tell companies what they can, can’t, and must put on product labels, the less consumers take responsibility for being knowledgeable about. If you can count on labels to tell you what to use, when to use it, how to use it, and all the possible things that you shouldn’t do with it, then if anything goes wrong it must be because you weren’t told something you should have been.
The new rules are probably good ones. Skin cancer is real, and protection against it is good. I guess I just wish the focus could be more on educating people and less on dictating all the details of product labels.