Do Na'vi Get Sunburned?

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Elaine Shannon Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Working Group, and Crown/Random House author

Does UVB turn them magenta? What about UVA? Is the damage noticeable, like maybe mauve, or unseen and insidious, as in humans?

Maybe the dearth of Na'vi studies, which have to be a challenge, considering we're just getting to know the lanky blue humanoids, is the reason the Federal Food and Drug Administration can't make a decision on sunscreen safety rules.

Otherwise, the FDA's story doesn't really track. The agency has been working on its sunscreen rules since 1978. Yes, 1978. Human skin hasn't changed all that much in 32 years. Neither has the sun.

After the Environmental Working Group inquired about the reason for the attenuated, even by government standards, process, an FDA official wrote to explain that the agency needed more time to "fully investigate new research and development for sunscreen products, permit adequate opportunity for public comment, and weigh research and development fairly and with full input from FDA subject area experts as well as industry stakeholders and the American public."

How much more time? No clue.

Should we be patient?

We have been. For 32 years.

Judging by the flood of comments pouring in to FDA, there's a strong demand for responsible government guidance on sunscreen ingredients and marketing claims. The stuff isn't cheap, and the stakes are considerable. Using an ineffective sunscreen can lead to sun damage, premature aging and ultimately, skin cancer. About 1 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most people don't want to set up themselves or their kids for a disorder that is very possibly avoidable.

To help fill the gap, EWG has come up with a sunscreen database that analyzes close to 2,000 sun protection products. It's part of EWG's cosmetics database, called Skin Deep. People must want its cosmetics safety data, because our log shows they've searched it 156 million times since 2004.

We'd be glad to have the FDA join in. It has a bigger budget, more personnel. Anyway, isn't this sort of thing its job?

Obviously, science marches on. The most innovative sunscreen makers are always going to be developing new and potentially more effective sun protection. These products will always have to be evaluated.

Fine. FDA can post updates.

But for now, why doesn't the agency sort out what it knows about the sunscreens currently on the market -- and hit the button? Are we missing something? Besides data on Na'vi?

If you want to read the FDA's letter yourself, we've posted it on EWG's Kid-Safe Chemicals blog. Be the first to crack FDA's code -- and join in the discussion, here or there.