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AOC's blemished skincare cause
Conflicts of interests, ignored safety concerns, and neoliberal rhetoric make this look a whole lot like industry PR.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has posted what looks an awful lot like a crass call for deregulation on behalf of sunscreen companies. Say what you will about the merits of her case, but the optics here are absolutely terrible — ironically, because the optics are so perfect. The shot is perfectly lit, everyone is wearing shades of white, even the walls are white. It looks like a cosmetics commercial! And in a way, it is: while AOC shakes her fist at the “regulatory barriers” that we need to “break through”, Dieux CEO Charlotte Palermino looms over her shoulder in pearls. Dieux, of course, is a skincare company that would stand to profit from getting past those pesky regulations.
It’s the conflicts of interest combined with AOC’s vague phrasing that makes this all so disturbing.
The gist of her argument is that US regulations should be more like those in the EU, at least insofar as they allow “better” sunscreens. But how does she want this to happen? At one point she gestures towards public funding for research, presumably because she thinks that research will reveal that more sunscreens meet the FDA’s standards; fair enough. But framing regulations as a “barrier” that needs to be “broken” is the language of neoliberalism, of at the very least relaxing our safety standards.
Perhaps there’s a good case to be made that the FDA has been overly cautious in approving UVA filters, but the argument in this clip isn’t convincing. AOC largely relies on what she calls “a Sloan Kettering study” from 2017, referring to the prestigious cancer research institute in NYC. What she doesn’t mention is the paper’s other institutional affiliations:
CRL Suncare, a private lab whose “clients include major sunscreen manufacturers in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as numerous start-up biotechnology firms and private entrepreneuers”;
DSM Nutritional Products — DSM is “a leading manufacturer of UV filters globally”; and
BASF Grenzach GmbH, a manufacturer involved with “the development, technical service and production of innovative UV filters”.
Even one of the paper’s Sloan Kettering contributors, Steven Wang, discloses that he’s served as a consultant for Neutrogena. So AOC’s main source for loosening UV filter regulations is a paper authored by guys who declare multiple conflicts of interest owing to their ties with the industry.
What I found most striking about this paper, however, is that it wasn’t even wrong. The authors survey twenty sunscreen products and conclude that more of them meet US standards for UV protection than EU standards. The FDA’s criteria are thus “less stringent,” as the authors put it, “than the criteria set by the European Union.” As far as I can tell this argument is correct, though it seems like something you’d find in Consumer Reports, not a scientific journal.
So the paper may be sound, but it’s also irrelevant to the argument that AOC is trying to make. The FDA hasn’t been holding up safety approval just because it’s confused about how UV protective these chemicals are. To get a sense of the concerns at hand, consider three that the Washington Post noted in 2021:
A clinical trial found that six UV filters were being absorbed into the bloodstream in higher concentrations than originally thought;
An independent lab found the carcinogen benzene in 78 sunscreens; and then
Or consider this statement from the FDA on two chemicals late last year:
the risks associated with use of these active ingredients in sunscreen products outweigh their benefits. In the case of trolamine salicylate, these risks include the potential for serious bleeding and salicylate toxicity (vomiting, hyperventilation, metabolic disturbances, coma and death) when this ingredient is used in sunscreens. For PABA, the risks include significant rates of allergic and photoallergic skin reactions, as well as cross-sensitization with structurally similar compounds that may lead to allergies to commonly used medications.
Meanwhile, there is a whole raft of chemicals for which “the public record does not currently contain sufficient data to support” a determination of safety by the FDA. Among them are the six that were being absorbed into the blood at “plasma levels exceeding the Food and Drug Administration exposure threshold.”
Good luck finding mention of any of this in the video. Instead, AOC just frames the question of FDA approval around whether or not certain UV filters are effective, or as if we’re just dealing with some vague bureaucratic issue. It would be one thing if she took on these safety concerns and concluded, rightly or wrongly, that they’re manageable. But when she ignores them altogether — while surrounded by so many conflicts of interest — it looks like we have much bigger things to worry about than ageing skin.
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