[Paleopsych] NYT: Psst! This Stuff Keeps You Young, but It's Illegal

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Mon Jun 20 00:31:32 UTC 2005

Psst! This Stuff Keeps You Young, but It's Illegal


    MEXORYL is not the most notorious drug on the black market. Only a few
    insiders, most of them women, even know its worth, let alone where to
    buy it. But it is one of the most ordinary substances ever to be
    bootlegged. Mexoryl SX, made by the Paris-based skin-care giant
    L'Oréal, is an illegal sunscreen in this country, one that is thought
    to be particularly useful in preventing wrinkles.

    Called by dermatologists one of the most effective filters of all
    wavelengths of ultraviolet light, Mexoryl has been used in sunscreen
    lotions sold in Canada and Europe for more than a decade. But the Food
    and Drug Administration has not yet approved it.

    The reason for the delay is difficult to discern, because the F.D.A.
    does not comment on drugs going through its sometimes lengthy approval
    process. Dr. Darrell S. Rigel, a dermatologist at New York University,
    however, said safety is not an issue. "It's just bureaucracy," he

    And so the cognoscenti ask for Ombrelle Extreme ($11), Garnier's Ambre
    Solaire ($24) or the particularly coveted Anthélios XL by La
    Roche-Posay ($40 and more for a relatively small tube) at certain drug
    stores - like Zitomer and Cambridge Chemists on Manhattan's Upper East
    Side - or order it online from Canadian or French pharmacies or even
    on eBay. Though the F.D.A. does not track down and prosecute those
    consumers, the purchases are technically illegal.

    When asked about the decision to sell the unapproved sunscreens,
    representatives of both Zitomer and Cambridge Chemists declined to

    "I started buying it from Canada," one 46-year-old New Yorker said
    about Anthélios, which she has used for three years. (She insisted
    that her name not be published because she did not want it publicly
    connected with illegal purchases.) The Canadian pharmacy Web site
    [3]feelbest.com sells a three-ounce tube for a little over $20, which
    is less than half the cost at Cambridge Chemists.

    The woman said she finds Anthélios lighter than titanium dioxide
    sunblocks and less likely to stain her clothes. "I buy it by the
    case," she said. "It's pretty good stuff."

    The demand for Mexoryl is partly driven by one of the strongest
    motives: vanity. People are getting wise to the idea that UVA rays,
    less known than sunburn-causing UVB rays, cause classic signs of
    aging, not only wrinkles but also sagging skin, brown spots and yellow
    discoloration. And finding a legal sunscreen in the United States that
    effectively blocks UVA light, which Mexoryl-enhanced products do, is
    not as easy as it might seem.

    Sunscreen labels often advertise "full spectrum" or "broad spectrum"
    properties, meaning that they block both UVA and UVB rays. But
    products can make this claim without specifying how well they protect
    against UVA rays. And because the familiar sun protection factor (SPF)
    measurements apply only to UVB blockage, consumers have no handy way
    to gauge the effectiveness of UVA filters.

    A 2004 Procter & Gamble study that looked at 188 United States
    sunscreens found that only 56 percent offered significant UVA
    protection, though 82 percent claimed to do so.

    Part of the problem is that only within the last 10 years have
    scientists come to understand the biomechanics of UVA damage. "Up
    until 1995 the thinking was that UVA was not as important as we now
    know," Dr. Rigel said.

    So far the Food and Drug Administration has approved only three
    ingredients protective against UVA: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and
    avobenzone (trade name Parsol 1789).

    But Mexoryl seems more effective than any of these at protecting
    against UVA light. In 2000, Canadian and French researchers slathered
    six brands of sunscreen and sunblock on the backs of volunteers and
    exposed their skin to a UV sunlamp for 15 minutes. The product
    containing Mexoryl (along with avobenzone, titanium dioxide and other
    ingredients) was more than twice as effective in protecting against
    UVA light as any of the others. The study was published in the Journal
    of the American Academy of Dermatology.

    Mexoryl's secret is its chemical structure, Dr. Rigel said. "You can
    achieve much more efficient and powerful and effective protection with
    this one ingredient, or you can add it to another ingredient and get
    an incredibly high SPF protection level, all the way up to SPF 90," as
    well as UVA protection, he said.

    The difference between UVA and UVB light is a matter of wavelength.
    UVA rays come in longer wavelengths (320 to 400 nanometers), so they
    pass through the outer layer of skin, rather than burning it as do the
    shorter UVB rays (290 to 320 nanometers). UVA rays penetrate deep into
    the dermis, or lower layer of skin, where they can break down collagen
    and other proteins that keep the skin plump and firm.

    "That deeper penetration and deeper damage is what we think is really
    associated with premature aging in the skin," said Dr. Clay J.
    Cockerell, a Dallas dermatologist, who is president of the American
    Academy of Dermatology.

    The UVA rays can also damage cells and DNA in the dermis, decrease the
    skin's immunity and generate harmful free radicals. Though the exact
    mechanisms remain unclear, doctors assume these actions explain why
    UVA exposure is also associated with skin cancer.

    Unlike UVB light, prevalent only when the sun is high in the sky -
    between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during summer - UVA light is virtually
    inescapable. "It's present in the same amount from sunup to sundown,
    365 days a year, totally independent of climate conditions," said Dr.
    Katie Rodan, an associate clinical dermatologist at Stanford

    That means it not only penetrates car windows and T-shirts, but it
    also reaches the skin during fog, rain and even blizzards.

    Mexoryl is also very sturdy compared with other UVA filters, which
    tend to decompose when exposed to sunlight. That may account for
    Mexoryl's slightly gummy texture, which can be noticeable on the skin
    long after it has been applied.

    It is hard to tell whether Mexoryl will make it to the United States
    market anytime soon. A L'Oréal spokeswoman would say only that the
    company has "initiated a process of discussion with the F.D.A.
    regarding Mexoryl and is continuing to work closely with the F.D.A."

    Doctors say UVA protection in this country has been slow to improve
    because consumers are not yet aware of the damage UVA light can do and
    of how inadequately many "broad spectrum" sunscreens protect against

    "I take care of some very well-educated people," Dr. Rodan of Stanford
    said. "Half of them are Berkeley professors. But beyond the SPF
    number, they don't know anything about sunscreen or what UVA light
    does. It's like 'in SPF I trust,' but that's so misleading when you
    consider the whole picture."

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