The ethics of sunscreen

Here's a perfect test case for thinking about consumer marketing and ethics. (I'm more interested in the structure of the problem than I am in sunscreen in particular). The question is: should a company do whatever it can to make a short-term profit, or should it work to do the right thing?

Sunscreen has no purpose other than to avoid both a burn and skin cancer. It doesn't bring social status, the joy of application or any placebo benefits with it. It either delivers a medical benefit or it doesn't.

For a decade, sunscreen marketers have been arguing with the FDA about labeling and formulation rules. Largely, they've been pushing for less regulation, particularly in labeling. While this is going on, more than 80,000 people have died of skin cancer in the US.

There are plenty of ways to rationalize false marketing claims (hey, at least they'll use something…) but it's pretty clear that marketers have done little to educate the public about what's going on (did you know that 95% of the radiation that hits us is cancer-causing and skin-aging UVA, the kind that SPF has no relevance to?)

New regulations were recently announced, though it's not surprising that many think the regs were watered down as a result of lobbying.

It turns out that in the US, sunscreens have been extraordinarily over-hyped, with variations being called 'waterproof, 'full spectrum' and 'effective' without being any of these. You need to use a lot more, and a lot more often, than the labels currently indicate. Marketers would prefer a magic bullet, as it's easier to sell, but sunscreen doesn't work that way. It's not easy to make an effective sunscreen, and so competitors with lesser products have hyped them with false or irrelevant claims. (SPF 120 anyone?)

Here are the two questions that occur to me:

How can consumers look at this example and not believe that the regulation of marketing claims is the only way to insulate consumers from short-term selfish marketers in search of market share, marketers who will shade the truth, even if it kills some customers?


Why aren't ethical marketers (of any product) eager to have clear and well-defined regulations, creating a set of honest definitions so that they can actually do what they set out to do–make a difference and make a living at the same time? If you're busy competing against people willing to cut corners, I'd think you'd want the rules to be really aggressive, clear and obvious.