RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—For the second time this month, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is sounding alarms about sunscreen. Last Friday, the senator stood with parents and a scientist from the nonprofit Consumers Union and called upon the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate sunscreens more tightly, after reviewing evidence that a common sunscreen ingredient could be a culprit in promoting, rather than protecting against, certain types of skin cancer.
THE DETAILS: The ingredient at issue is retinyl palmitate, a derivative of vitamin A added to a wide variety of sunscreens and other personal-care products to enhance your skin's appearance. But its use in sunscreens concerns Schumer and other public health advocates, who cite numerous studies finding that it breaks down in the presence of UV rays to form DNA-damaging free radicals, which can promote the development of certain types of cancer. The government took notice of this research, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and FDA National Center for Toxicological Research decided to conduct studies of their own to see how reactive the chemical is and whether it should be removed from sunscreens. The agencies finished their study last July and have posted results online, but they have yet to publicize any final assessments or recommendations based on their findings. In the statement made last Friday, Schumer said that "with the recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens, the FDA must act now to protect consumers in New York and across the nation. Summer is here, people are soaking up the sun, and the FDA needs to immediately provide guidance and reassurance to consumers."
Olga Naidenko, PhD, senior scientist at the advocacy-oriented Environmental Working Group (EWG) and a lead researcher of the group's annual report on sunscreen safety, has reviewed the FDA's data and says what she found was concerning. "The government data is available on a website, and it shows that the animals that got vitamin A treatments did in fact develop tumors earlier than animals that received sunscreens without it, a sign that this compound may pose a risk," she says. "This is a very cautious interpretation of their results, but on the basis of what we saw, it raised a concern for us as to its use in sunscreens."
WHAT IT MEANS: One reason the FDA may be dragging its feet is a typical Washington problem—industry influence. In addition to deciding whether retinyl palmitate should be removed from products, the agency has been considering for years whether to impose stricter limits on how high an SPF rating can go, and whether to create a new rating system for UVA rays (the rays responsible for skin cancer but not included in SPF ratings). "The industry influence has been significant as to why the FDA has not finalized its sunscreen regulations," Naidenko says. "Part of the problem is that, in the absence of regulation, this has been a wild marketing field with all kinds of really overblown claims."