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Sunscreen Makers Feel the Burn

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Thanks to consumers’ growing awareness of skin cancer and the horrors of farmer’s tan, the sunscreen industry has become very profitable and very crowded, with hundreds of brands accounting for more than $700 million in sales.

sunscreen.jpgBut here’s the rub: It’s also a category in turmoil. The Food and Drug Administration last established regulations for sunscreen way back in 1978. A lot has changed since then, and now the FDA is set to issue a new set of rules that could really shake things up. On the table are regulations that would cap SPF protection at 50 — since anything above that is misleading in the protection it provides, the FDA notes — as well as hedge lofty terms like “waterproof” and “sunblock”.

The decades-long delay in releasing new rules has frustrated organizations like the Environmental Working Group, who have taken it upon themselves to educate consumers and warn them of potentially harmful ingredients. Recently, EWG released its latest sunscreen report card, which scores 1,700 different sunscreens for safety and effectiveness. Only 20% passed (which is a big improvement, actually, from last year’s 8% pass rate).

At issue are not only high SPF counts, according to the EWG, but also ingredients like retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in more than one third of sunscreens that the National Toxicology Program has linked to skin cancer.

With the sands shifting beneath the industry, shoppers are arming themselves with information. The EWG’s scorecard is now available as a phone app, so consumers can look up brands in the searchable database as they browse their local store. There are also a growing number of apps that let users know when to apply and re-apply sunscreen when they head outdoors.

A burgeoning segment of natural sunscreens are addressing safety concerns, but the tradeoff on price can be steep. Sweeping changes from the FDA could go a long way to reigning in claims and bringing some uniformity to the industry. In the meantime, sunscreen makers will have to live under the magnifying glass and hope they don’t get burned.

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