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The Urgent Case for Sunscreen Safety

Published July 21, 2021
Published July 21, 2021
Stanley Dai via Unsplash

The latest incarnation of sunscreen controversy started with the downfall of a skincare community icon: Purito’s Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF 50+. In an in vivo test, the brand’s sunscreen displayed an SPF 19 protection level instead of the advertised 50. Where did the influencer favorite tumble? Possible culprits may be on the formulation or testing side. Purito’s ingredient list only has one absorber for each UV type—ethylhexyl triazone (Uvinul T 150) for UVB rays, and diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate (Uvinul A Plus) for UVA, at levels of 2% and 3% respectively—versus the industry standard of two to three absorbers. In terms of testing, all designated cosmetic labs run an internal standard test alongside their trial to ensure an adequate test result. If Purito’s product performed below the testing standard, this product error should have been caught pre-launch. Purito has since pulled three of its sunscreen products off the market.

It’s not the first time this product genre has encountered trouble. Banana Boat received backlash in 2017 when tests revealed its SPF 50+ products had only SPF 11-18 protection, resulting in sunburnt customers—an immense blow to consumer trust and brand image. “Every time you put a product out there, your entire reputation and your business is on the line. Those who take shortcuts could really pay for it in a big way,” Dr. Ken Marenus, President of the Independent Beauty Association, tells BeautyMatter.

The FDA is looking to issue a new set of guidelines by September of this year amidst increasing concerns around the safety of sunscreen ingredients. The carcinogen benzene was found in over 78 commercial sunscreen products, clearly a manufacturing contamination issue. This month, Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled five of its aerosol sunscreen products after benzene was discovered in them. In terms of the formulations themselves, a 2020 Journal of the American Medical Association study on the chemical filters omosalate, octisalate, octinoxate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene showed that all six were absorbed into the bloodstream, exceeding the FDA threshold after one application. General consensus indicates that physical filters such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the safest bet, given that, as inorganic compounds, they are not absorbed into the body.

“Every time you put a product out there, your entire reputation and your business is on the line. Those who take shortcuts could really pay for it in a big way."
By Dr. Ken Marenus, President, Independent Beauty Association

Nonprofit Clean Production Action recently partnered with Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse to release Principles for Chemical Ingredient Disclosure, six principles that have been endorsed by more than 100 businesses, health care organizations, investors, NGOs, and governments to date. While these principles extend across multiple industries, their elements, such as disclosure of all added ingredients, increased supply-chain transparency, clear and easily accessible data on the toxicity of certain chemicals, and supporting policies and standards which support these efforts, could all have lasting effects on the beauty industry.

"The 'clean' beauty, food and household categories are growing rapidly: customers, brands and retailers want safer, more sustainable ingredients and products. But how can we be confident in our products if many chemical ingredients remain undisclosed?,” asks Mia Davis, VP Sustainability & Impact at Credo Beauty.

Another piece of the puzzle is that regulations are not the same worldwide. In the US market, sunscreens are classified as a drug, whereas in most other markets they are identified as a cosmetic, meaning US regulations and quality control are much stricter, as are the potential consequences of formulating a product that doesn’t offer adequate protection. The testing standards, however, are uniform across the board.

SPF is determined by the amount of time it takes for a site covered by the sunscreen product and exposed to a solar simulator to redden versus when uncovered. Unfortunately, the amount of sunscreen used is often far less than that used by consumers, as a study by the European Commission shows that consumers use four times less product than in tests, resulting in strongly reduced protection levels.

Helpful pointers to ensure better SPF protection include testing across multiple labs (as results can vary from lab to lab), testing a variety of UV filters rather than just one, and testing higher concentrations of filters overall. Manufacturers should also be wary of photosensitive botanicals such as bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, and mandarin peel extracts, which can result in allergic reactions. One of the most challenging aspects of the scenario is creating an effective SPF with a pleasing product feel, as high levels of UV filters (and large amounts of product to ensure adequate coverage) tend to result in a thicker and stickier experience. As consumers increasingly scrutinize the ingredient list and protection performance of their SPF products, as well as the potential banning of certain chemical filters in the near future, the industry will need to innovate, and fast.


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