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Americans are getting skin cancer more than ever. Europe and Asia have better sunscreen

Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Shelf of sunscreen.

Sunscreen is important anywhere — but especially in the Phoenix area , with its 300 days of sunshine every year. But, the kind of sunscreen available to consumers in the U.S. is apparently not as effective as that in other parts of the world.

Michael Scaturro haswritten about this. He is a journalist based in Atlanta where he reports on health care issues for Kaiser Health News and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The Show spoke with him about what the differences are between the sunscreens one can buy in the United States and those that one can buy elsewhere.

Conversation highlights

Michael Scaturro
Michael Scaturro
Michael Scaturro

What the differences are between the sunscreens one can buy in the U.S. and those that one can buy elsewhere?

MICHAEL SCATURRO: So the sunscreens that people are buying are able to buy in the U.S. are basically made from sunscreen filters that are quite old, that basically people were using in Europe and in Asia like 20, 30 even 40 years ago. So that's the main difference, the filters that people who make sunscreens in Japan and South Korea and France and Germany, et cetera. Those filters are newer, they're just newer products. And I think you could compare it to like using an older computer, right?

I mean, if you think back to the '90s, we had these like clunky, plasticky, gigantic computers, right? And that's kind of what American sunscreens are. Like, they're just really old. They're using technology from the '80s, really. Because that's how old these filters are. And Europe, Asia, the rest of the world are basically using, like, brand new iPhones.

Does that mean that we are getting less good protection from the sun than other places are?

SCATURRO: Yeah, that's definitely what's happening. We're seeing, for instance, that the sun basically has something called UV light, right? And it's comes essentially in three forms UVC, which is filtered out by the atmosphere; UVB, which is a very small percentage which burns the skin; and then UVA, which is actually most of the ultraviolet light. And the sunscreens in the U.S. have a number on them. So you can see like 50 on the front of the sunscreen. That means that the sunscreen has a 50 rating for blocking UVB. But the sunscreens in Europe, basically when they have 50 or something like that on the front of the bottle, that means that they block UVB and UVA to a certain level. And the issue is in the U.S., like our sunscreens are really only like you would really only know when you buy a sunscreen in a store that the sunscreen has a certain UVB blocking potential. The FDA has put in place certain regulations. They basically said that sunscreens that use the broad spectrum nomenclature, or broad broad spectrum label, have to have a certain amount of UVA blocking potential. But the FDA's own studies, other studies have shown that the U.S. sunscreens don't even meet that standard and fall far short of the UVA blocking standard that is in place in Europe.

That seems like a pretty significant problem. If people are using this American sunscreen and going out in the sun, that seems frankly like a recipe for skin cancer.

SCATURRO: Well, and that's actually happened. You may have seen in the article that skin cancer is now the No. 1 cancer in the U.S. It's really, really becoming a problem. It's not the most deadly cancer, obviously. Breast cancer, the second most cancer is quite deadly. But the problem is it's completely avoidable. So the, the advantage of these European sunscreens, of course, Asian sunscreens, European sunscreens is that they have a very high ability to block UVA light, which is what we're exposed to every day, which is really what causes the damage to the skin.

As you report, there are various reasons with the federal government that American sunscreens are not doing that. Has there been any movement to allow American companies to start using some of those products that the Europeans and the Asians are using?

SCATURRO: Well, I think there, there has been some movement. There is one company, there's a Swiss company that makes a really high tech UVA filtering — actually UVA and UVB filtering sunscreen ingredient. And they're trying to get this ingredient through the FDA. The ingredient is called bemotrizinol. So they call it BEMT for short.

But the issue of course is that sunscreens in the U.S. are not regulated like cosmetics as they are in most other countries. So in like any country in the world, sunscreen is regulated like lipstick or mascara, that sort of thing. But in the U.S., sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug like Advil or Zyrtec nasal spray. And for that reason, it has to go through a lot more checks that the other countries would necessarily subject new sunscreens or sunscreen ingredients to.

So in order to create more momentum, let's say, around this to get more, more and newer sunscreen ingredients passed Congress has actually twice tried to pass through legislation acts that would ... urge the FDA to speed up the process, right? One occurred in 2019 and then 2021 during the pandemic. Actually, there's another piece of legislation and those legislative legislative attempts haven't really succeeded because the FDA has said, "Well, you know, we have a huge dossier, we have a lot of things to look at and Congress hasn't really given us the funds or the resources to look at things like sunscreen."

So this last, this most recent legislative attempt creates almost like a funding stream that the FDA will use to hire more people. But of course, there's a backlog, right? Because this was passed in 2021 and the pandemic would meant that people were not really working or many people were working. So really like they're just getting caught up with that.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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