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How Safe Is Sunscreen? We Don't Know


LAUREN GILGER: Ah, the good old days, Mark.

MARK BRODIE: That music is outstanding, isn't it?

GILGER: Right, when being out in the sun was just about fun and sunscreen was mostly about getting a good tan.

BRODIE: Those days are definitely over. We just know too much about skin cancer and the dangers of those UV rays now.

GILGER: Right. And sunscreen has become an all-important ubiquitous product that we all use just about all the time, I hope. But how do we know if what we're putting on our skin when we slather on the sunscreen is really safe? It turns out we do not know. Now, the FDA is taking a big step, though, in doing that. The agency announced last month it is issuing proposed guidelines and regulations to assess just how much we know about the safety of sunscreen. And our next guest says it is long overdue. Nneka Leiba is director of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) [Healthy'] Living Science program. EWG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to protect human health and the environment.

LEIBA: This is such an important thing for the FDA to do at this point. In fact it's it's way overdue. We are using much more sunscreens these days than we have used in the past. And many of the chemicals that are in sunscreen haven't been adequately assessed for safety. And in fact in the new monograph that the FDA released, their proposal, they said only two of the 16 current actives are generally recognized as safe. So they need more information on a number of the others that are pretty frequently used in sunscreen products.

GILGER: Right. So that sounds alarming, right? When the FDA says just two of these ingredients are deemed safe. Does that mean that the rest are hurting us, or potentially hurting us?

LEIBA: "Potentially" is the correct word there, but in fact we don't know. Our research at EWG over the last almost 15 years of working on sunscreens, indicate that a number of the active ingredients that they are seeking more information about — like oxybenzone ... and some of the others — are linked to endocrine disruption. So we're glad that the FDA is finally going to take a stronger look at those ingredients, but in fact the damage has been working on sunscreens, like I said for more than 15 year. And we have consistently been saying that the mineral-based products — the ones with the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that the agency determined to be generally recognized as safe — are in fact what people should be using. So we've been touting that information for a long time.

GILGER: So, I guess I want to zoom out for a second. It seems alarming to me these findings, first of all, but it also led to most people would be a little worrisome that this has been allowed to be sold when the FDA doesn't in fact know that they can guarantee that this is safe for people. How is that the case?

LEIBA: I hear you, and I laugh a little bit when you say it's alarming, because I know that to be true, but in fact, those of us that work very intimately in this area know that in personal care products in general, the oversight by the FDA is pretty loose.

GILGER: Right.

LEIBA: So this isn't shocking to us.

GILGER: Right. OK, so what led to this? Was there sort of mounting pressure or did the FDA just decide it was time?

LEIBA: Mounting pressure definitely led to this. But a few years ago the Sunscreen Innovation Act was passed, and in that that act they put a deadline on finalizing the monograph. That deadline is coming up at the end of this year.

GILGER: So then, I mean, the important thing here ... is what do you do as a consumer? None of this at this point has any bearing on the sunscreens that are being sold in stores and are on the shelf right now, right? So what can you do as a consumer to try to make sure that you're not putting something on you or on your kids that is harmful?

LEIBA: I think the important thing in this proposal is the statement that the mineral active ingredients are generally recognized as safe. And that the takeaway is that consumers can use when shopping. No, and in fact EWG's guide to sunscreens that we release every year has a list of sunscreens about 200 to 250 sunscreens that we recommend because they use those ingredients, and because they actually provide broad spectrum protection. And don't have ingredients of concern. So the first thing consumers can do is choose a product from our guide. But if our guide isn't accessible to them, then turning over the bottle, looking at the active ingredients and looking for zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide is really important. If you see anything other than those two, you do have to take pause, because the FDA is currently looking into all of the other actives.

GILGER: All right. So we'll make sure to post a link to that on our website. That's Nneka Leiba director of the Environmental Working Groups Healthy Living Science program. Nneka, thank you so much for joining us to tell us about this.

LEIBA: Awesome. Thank you for having me

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.