Nonfood for Profit: A ray of sunshine

New government rules should bring a level of sensibility to the booming, but confusing, sunscreen category.

By Seth Mendelson

I can’t tell you how many arguments I have had with people over the proper use of sunscreen products. Typically these little tiffs take place at a location you would assume people would talk about sunscreen products—usually lounging around water, whether by an ocean, lake or pool.

The arguments have tended to revolve around the benefits of these items, frequently centering on how much lotion is too much to apply or whether products with sun protection factors (SPFs) of 50 or more were any more effective than those items with SPFs in the 15 to 30 range.

For years, the government was a willing partner in this confusing debate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long held a vague view of what sun care products were actually supposed to do. Virtually everyone else associated with the category agrees that the No. 1 goal was to protect the user from the harmful effects of the sun. However, many industry observers have stated that this mission was often lost amongst many other issues, including whether these products were waterproof or sweatproof.

Finally, after more than three decades of debate and consideration that really proved that the government is never in a rush to do anything, the FDA has come out with new rules that specify which lotions provide the best protection against the sun and ending claims that they are truly waterproof or sweatproof.

According to The New York Times, the FDA’s new rules, which go into effect in about a year, will decree that sunscreens must protect equally against two kinds of the sun’s radiation, UVB and UVA, to earn the coveted designation of offering “broad spectrum” protection. UVB rays cause burning; UVA rays cause wrinkling; and both cause cancer.

Interestingly, after all those years of debating, it seems the government has found its sea legs, at least with this category. FDA officials were quite blunt when they announced that they will also ban sunscreen manufacturers from claiming their products are waterproof or sweatproof because such claims are simply false. Instead, sunscreen suppliers will be allowed to claim, in minutes, the amount of time in which the product is water resistant, depending upon test results. The government added that only sunscreens that have an SPF of 15 or higher will be allowed to maintain that they help prevent sunburn and reduce the risks of skin cancer and premature skin aging.

The Times article says that federal regulators have not yet decided whether to end the most interesting marketing tactic of all in the sunscreen wars—the incredible fight to market a product with the highest SPF. It has long been known by anyone who cared that SPFs above 50 were really not much better—if at all—at protecting users from the sun’s harmful rays than products in the 50 range.

Is this a good thing for the sunscreen category at retail? The short answer is yes. This category has been a steady performer for years, helped by rising demand from a more educated consumer base. Any effort to bring some level of rationality to this wide-wielding category has to be met by cheers from the retail world, which will now be able to stock a more sensible array of products that should meet the needs of nearly all consumers.

Suppliers will have to find other ways to differentiate themselves from the competition and, it is my guess, that they will be forced to spend more money on advertising to separate their brands from competitors. But this is good news for retailers who will benefit from the buzz in this category.

My guess is that there are bright days ahead for the sunscreen category. 

Seth Mendelson can be reached at  646-274-3507, or smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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