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American sunscreen may damage coral reefs — unlike sunscreen you can buy overseas. Here’s why.

It’s all about the politics of regulation.

Americans headed to the pool or beach this summer will face a new challenge protecting themselves from the sun. Several of the leading ingredients in broad-spectrum sunscreens may damage coral reefs, even as they help protect against skin cancer. For this reason, some governments — including those in Hawaii and Key West, Fla., and the island nation of Palau — have banned certain sunscreens.

But American consumers face a specific challenge: Despite the dizzying number of sunscreen products on the market, U.S. policy provides fewer “reef-safe” choices than in Europe. Here’s why.

The problem with sunscreens in the U.S.

Sunscreens are considered to provide broad-spectrum protection if they protect against certain damaging ultraviolet rays (both UVA and UVB rays). The familiar sun-protection factor (SPF) number is primarily a measure of protection against UVB, whereas the broad-spectrum label designates UVA coverage.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens typically rely on either physical blockers or chemical blockers to help prevent the sun’s rays from penetrating the skin. The physical blockers are based on minerals, mainly zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Some chemical blockers in the broad-spectrum sunscreens include oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are easy to apply and faster for the skin to absorb. But these chemicals have been associated with coral bleaching, in which coral reefs under stress release the algae that provide color and life to the reefs and the species that live around them. Environmentalists have pushed for new sunscreen regulations as a result.

In the United States, most broad-spectrum sunscreens have one or both of these ingredients. In the European Union, it’s different. Consumers can choose from more kinds of broad-spectrum sunscreens, including those that are not banned. This makes it easier for European travelers to bring the “reef safe” sunscreens on their travels.

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Why the U.S. is different

The source of this difference between the United States and Europe is how they choose to regulate sunscreens. My research shows that typically the United States tends to take a more pro-business stance, while the E.U. has a more precautionary stance, often with stricter regulations. But sunscreen is different.

In the E.U., sunscreens are regulated as cosmetics, not as drugs. The E.U. Cosmetics Regulation specifically requires sunscreen producers to provide a risk profile, environmental impact analysis and specific labeling for consumers, to respond to scientific complexity and higher potential risk to consumer health. This has created a system with faster regulatory approvals and streamlined testing for new and safer ingredients, which can then be brought to the market more quickly. For example, the E.U. offers 27 approved sunscreen ingredients, including many unavailable in the United States. In this case, more regulation gives European consumers more choices.

In the United States, meanwhile, sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter medication, because it is intended to help prevent sunburn and decrease the risk of skin cancer. Medications have more rigorous requirements than cosmetics to enter the U.S. market, and sunscreen producers must register information about product safety. As is true for other medications, the process of obtaining Food and Drug Administration approval for sunscreen can be slow. In 2014, the U.S. government passed the Sunscreen Innovation Act to encourage the development of new ingredients, but the FDA hasn’t approved any. As of 2019, the FDA has approved only three broad-spectrum sunscreens for the United States, which happen to be the ones to be banned in Hawaii.

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What this means for the politics of sunscreen

Because U.S. consumers buying broad-spectrum sunscreen are almost forced to choose one with a potentially dangerous chemical, a political battle is underway. On one side are supporters of banning sunscreens with these chemicals, including environmental advocates and researchers, consumer safety groups, some travel companies such as Hawaiian Airlines, and other companies that prioritize environmental responsibility, such as Patagonia. The outdoor company REI plans to sell only “reef-safe” sunscreens as of 2020. In addition, some Hawaii tourist information sites now provide information about which sunscreens are reef-safe. The Environmental Working Group said that the move is an effort to put pressure on sunscreen manufacturers to protect people and coral.

Opponents of sunscreen bans include two trade groups, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, representing makers of over-the-counter medicine, and the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the cosmetics industry. They argue that companies would have to pay high costs of adjustment. Meanwhile, some dermatologists are concerned that the ban may lead people not to wear sunscreen at all, therefore increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Complicating things is that no scientific consensus has emerged. Some scientists argue that there is insufficient evidence that sunscreens cause coral bleaching, and these bans are just a diversion from the global warming and pollution that harm the global heritage of coral reefs.

So what’s next?

In February, the FDA proposed a rule to update the sunscreen requirements for the U.S. market. It seeks to collect safety data about chemical sunscreens, to provide clear labeling for consumers, and to provide safe, effective choices for citizens. However, the industry has pushed back, preferring the less stringent requirements governing sunscreen ingredients.

All this means that the “business-friendly” United States has strict, outdated rules that lead to fewer choices and less information about sunscreen ingredients and effects on coral reefs. European rules mean more choices, more information and more options, as do rules from Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea, all of which include newer, safer ingredients in sunscreens. Although the outcome of the new U.S. sunscreen rule is not certain, its result is that the United States lags behind in making reef-safe sunscreen available.

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Kirsten Rodine-Hardy is an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University and the author of “Global Markets and Government Regulation in Telecommunications” (Cambridge University Press) and the forthcoming “Nanotechnology: Regulation at the Nexus of Environmental Politics and International Security” (Stanford University Press).

Nithya Pathalam is a recent graduate of Georgetown University interested in the nexus of science, law and policy who has worked as one of Rodine-Hardy’s research assistants for three years.