Is There a Fight Going on Between Dermatologists and The TSA?

Unpacking the mixed messages around flying with sunscreen.

On Apr. 12, the Transportation Security Administration (a.k.a. the TSA) announced it was allowing full-size sunscreen products to be packed in carry-on bags during air travel, identifying SPF as "medically necessary liquids." That would be a huge shift from current 3-1-1 requirements, which state that all liquids, gels, and aerosols must be less than 3.4 ounces. However, the organization quickly retracted the new development, stating it had been in error and that everything, except for hand sanitizer, needed to adhere to the old rules.

"Sunscreen in carry-on bags must be 3.4 [fl.] oz or less," a TSA spokesperson told Well + Good after the mix-up. "Larger quantities should be placed in checked baggage."

"Our website incorrectly reported that sunscreen containers larger than 3.4 oz. were allowed in carry-on bags, if medically necessary," the TSA website reads. "That error has been corrected. Travelers still need to ensure liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on bags meet the 3-1-1 requirements and are no larger than 3.4 ounces."

Allure reports that the news excited dermatologists, saying that the regulation would have encouraged people to use sunscreen — and not be stingy about it. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad spectrum of 30 or higher every two hours (or after excessive sweating or swimming). "For maximum protection," the org explains, people should "apply a shot-glass amount" of SPF over their entire body every time they plan on being exposed to the sun.

Of course, when the TSA changed its mind, experts wanted to know why SPF wasn't considered a "medically necessary liquid," which includes IV bags, petroleum jelly, liquid nutrition, and other items that must be declared and screened.

Well + Good notes that a carry-on approved 3.4-ounce bottle of sunscreen is sufficient for a weekend trip, but adds that per ounce, smaller bottles are more expensive. With sweating and swimming involved, the site notes that reapplication should be more frequent, so vacation-goers should be able to pack more SPF.

Tiffany J. Libby, MD, director of Mohs Micrographic and Dermatologic Surgery at Brown University, and Julia A. Siegel, MD, have been urging the TSA to amend its carry-on rules to include larger-sized sunscreens since October 2020, when they published a proposal in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

With no news regarding when (if ever) the TSA will change its mind about SPF, travelers will need to adhere to the 3-1-1 rule for their sunscreen and any other liquids they plan to stash in their carry-on bags.

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