Americans Can’t Buy the Top-Notch Sunscreen That Europeans Have Been Using for Years

The best sunburn protections are blocked by a federal backlog, but Congress is pushing legislation it says will clear the way.

National Journal
Sophie Novack
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sophie Novack
April 7, 2014, 10:04 a.m.

Sun­screens that have been avail­able in Europe and oth­er for­eign mar­kets for years re­main banned from U.S. stores be­cause of a back­log in the fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy.

The in­gredi­ents that make the sun­screen su­per­i­or have been await­ing ap­prov­al — or any sort of de­cision — from the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion for at least 12 years. There are cur­rently eight such in­gredi­ents stuck in the sys­tem.

Without ac­cess to the in­gredi­ents, con­sumers may be blocked from buy­ing the sun­screens that provide the most ef­fect­ive pro­tec­tions against harm­ful rays.

Con­gress has a plan to break the 12-year back­log: The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee on Monday is look­ing at le­gis­la­tion that would ex­ped­ite the FDA’s ap­prov­al pro­cess for sun­screen in­gredi­ents. Should the pan­el ap­prov­al the meas­ure, it would put the bill one step closer to pas­sage.

A com­pan­ion ver­sion of the House bill is pending with the Sen­ate’s Health Com­mit­tee.

The le­gis­la­tion aims to im­prove on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s latest at­tempt to make it­self more nimble in keep­ing up with sun­block tech­no­logy: a 2002 pro­ced­ur­al change from the FDA that the agency hoped would speed up its ap­prov­al pro­cess.

But without a single in­gredi­ent be­ing ap­proved since then, ad­voc­ates say it’s time for an­oth­er try.

“FDA’s goal was to cre­ate a more stream­lined pro­cess; it just didn’t work out that way,” says a staff mem­ber of the Pub­lic Ac­cess to Sun­Screens Co­ali­tion. “Every­one — melan­oma re­search­ers, the com­munity, man­u­fac­tur­ers, pa­tients, even the FDA — every­one agrees the cur­rent situ­ation is not work­ing. When you com­bine that with the in­creas­ing rates of skin can­cer, it’s a ser­i­ous pub­lic-health con­cern.”

At stake is more than sun­burns: Skin can­cer is the most com­mon form of can­cer in the United States. more than 2 mil­lion cases are dia­gnosed each year, many of which could be pre­ven­ted by pro­tect­ing the skin from sun ex­pos­ure, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an Can­cer So­ci­ety.

Con­gres­sion­al ad­voc­ates hope they can im­prove the FDA’s ex­ist­ing pro­ced­ure without upend­ing the en­tire sys­tem.

Un­der cur­rent law, if an in­gredi­ent is on the mar­ket in an­oth­er coun­try for five years, it may go through a pro­cess to be de­term­ined eli­gible by the FDA. An ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee of ex­perts then weighs in on the safety and ef­fect­ive­ness of the product, and the agency makes the fi­nal de­term­in­a­tion as to wheth­er it is ap­proved.

The Sun­screen In­nov­a­tion Act makes two primary changes to this pro­cess. First, it would in­sti­tute an eight-month dead­line for the FDA to make a de­cision, re­pla­cing a cur­rent re­view pro­cess that lacks a man­dat­ory end date. Second, the bill would no longer re­quire the FDA to is­sue a reg­u­la­tion every time it wants to ap­prove an in­gredi­ent.

The FDA de­clined to com­ment on the bill, but a spokes­per­son said the agency has “pri­or­it­ized re­view­ing the safety and ef­fect­ive­ness of ad­di­tion­al sun­screen in­gredi­ents as quickly as pos­sible giv­en the agency’s re­sources.”

This frus­tra­tion has boiled over to Cap­it­ol Hill, with match­ing House and Sen­ate bills to ad­dress the prob­lem. The House ver­sion be­ing con­sidered Monday was in­tro­duced by Re­pub­lic­an Ed Whit­field and Demo­crat John Din­gell. The Sen­ate ver­sion came from Demo­crat Jack Reed and Re­pub­lic­an Johnny Isak­son.

With back­ing from both parties, ad­voc­ates are cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic about the bills be­com­ing law, but they re­cog­nize that bi­par­tis­an sup­port is no guar­an­tee of pas­sage — par­tic­u­larly in the cur­rent grid­locked en­vir­on­ment.

“Try­ing to pre­dict what Con­gress is go­ing to do is kind of like hav­ing a per­fect March Mad­ness brack­et,” the sun­screens co­ali­tion staff mem­ber said. “But I will say there has been tre­mend­ous bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al sup­port.”

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
3 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
3 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
3 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.