Have you noticed marketing campaigns for sunscreens start popping up everywhere: on your social media feeds, websites, magazines, and on TV? You're not alone. You might have been wondering if there is a difference between all these sunscreens – and how to choose the best for yourself.
It can be very difficult to decode all the different technical terms and claims used about sunscreens, since marketing by sunscreen brands is often purposefully misleading, and in some cases just plain untruthful.
In this article, we will shed light on some of the most common, misleading claims used by sunscreen marketers. First and foremost, we will give you a crash course in the science of sunscreens. By the end of the article, you should be able to make your own informed decisions about which sunscreens are best for you, and the planet.
Some of the questions covered include:
- What types of protection do sunscreens offer?
- What is the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens?
- Should I choose a mineral or chemical sunscreen?
- What is meant by nano or non-nano, uncoated or coated?
- Sunscreen marketing that is made to mislead you
- How do I find the best sunscreen for me?
1. WHAT TYPES OF PROTECTION DO SUNSCREENS OFFER?
The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are harmful to human skin. They cause skin burning, premature aging, and skin cancer. Sunscreens with sun filter lotions, creams, balms, or powders protect the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that regular daily use of sunscreen with just SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing skin pre-cancer by about 40% and lower your skin cancer risk by 50%.
The level of sunscreen protection is measured on two levels: the sun protection factor (SPF) and the type of UV protection.
The SPF number indicates how long it would take the sun's rays to redden your skin if you used the product exactly as instructed and how long it would take if you didn't use any sunscreen. Ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen and with SPF 50 it would take 50 times longer.
But there is a big "but” here. Sunscreen is never used in ideal laboratory conditions. In real-life conditions, high SPF numbers often give people a false sense of security. They use less of the product, forget to reapply, and do not seek shade.
The type of UV protection offered by a sunscreen is indicated on the product. UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer.
A sunscreen’s SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides. UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to skin aging and wrinkles, and also cancer. (An easy rule of thumb for this is “UVBurning”, “UVAging”).
The label “broad spectrum” on a product means its filters can protect you against both UVB and UVA rays.
A further protective measure in sunscreens is their ability to resist water. If a sunscreen has been formulated to resist sweating or water exposure, its label will contain the words “water-resistant” followed by the number of minutes the product has been tested to be water-resistant.
2. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MINERAL AND CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS?
There are two categories of sun filters that are used in sunscreens to block out UV light: chemical and mineral. Chemical filters are compounds that penetrate the skin, absorb UV rays, convert them into heat, and disperse them from the skin. The most common chemical filters are called oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
Mineral filters sit on top of the skin and physically block UV rays. This is why mineral filters are also called physical filters, or sunblocks. The two mineral filters found in sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Most mass-market, traditional sunscreens are using chemical filters that are cheap and are easier to formulate a lighter, spreadable, and invisible product even at high protection levels.
Mineral sun filters have traditionally had the reputation of being heavier and stickier and leaving a white cast on the skin. Luckily, mineral sun filter technology developments have led to much better, lightweight filters that allow for even dispersion and seamless application.
3. SHOULD I CHOOSE A MINERAL OR CHEMICAL SUNSCREEN?
There are two big reasons why you should avoid using sunscreens containing chemical filters:
The fact is that chemical sunscreens are absorbed through human skin at a higher rate than previously believed. We now know that several chemical filters have been linked to allergic skin reactions and hormone disruption in children and adults. The most alarming is oxybenzone, which not only causes allergic skin reactions but lab studies have shown that oxybenzone is causing disruptions to hormonal balance.
In 2019 the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) declared only 2 out of 16 available sunscreen actives as GRASE (“generally regarded as safe and effective”). These two were the mineral filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. FDA stated: “there are insufficient safety data to make a positive GRASE determination for the remaining 12 ingredients at this time”
In 2019 and 2020, FDA published two studies showing that the ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and avobenzone are systemically absorbed into the body after a single use (Matta 2019, Matta 2020). The FDA also found that the chemical sunscreen ingredients could be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after the application. (Matta 2020)
b) They can be damaging to aquatic life
Now let’s consider the health of our planet. As National Geographic reports, 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter waters, and coral reefs are dying because of this. This phenomenon is called coral bleaching.
The biggest culprits are the chemical sun filters oxybenzone and octinoxate. But other chemical sun filters, as well as parabens, retinyl palmitate, and fragrances can all disturb aquatic life. Although coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, they support nearly 25% of all marine life. Their health is central to the functioning of aquatic ecosystems.
Due to the increasing evidence against chemical sun filters, the state of Hawaii decided in 2018 to ban the sale of sunscreen products containing the chemical filters oxybenzone and octinoxate by 2021. In 2019 the same ban was passed in the Florida state senate.
Other reasons for choosing mineral sunscreens over chemical ones relate to their mode of action: physically blocking UV rays. This makes mineral sunscreens naturally broad-spectrum because they reflect both UVB and UVA rays from the skin’s surface.
Chemical sunscreen typically take 20 to 30 minutes to absorb into the skin, mineral sunscreens offer immediate protection — no waiting needed. Lastly, mineral filters do not convert UV rays into heat as chemical filters do. Mineral sunscreens are therefore ideal for children, people with sensitive skin, and people with rosacea or melasma. The heat dissipation of chemical sunscreens can exacerbate rosacea and melasma and inflame sensitive skins.
4. WHAT IS MEANT BY NANO OR NON-NANO, UNCOATED OR COATED?
Many clean and natural beauty brands have started writing that their sunscreens use non-nano, uncoated minerals. What does this mean exactly?
A nanoparticle is defined as a particle smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter. The nanoparticle controversy stems from the potential health risks caused by nanoparticles if they were to enter the human body. The biggest concern with nanoparticles in cosmetics is the threat of inhalation when they are used in powders and sprays.
This is not a concern when particles like zinc oxide are dispersed in a cream or lotion base. Studies have shown that very small nanoparticles (smaller than 35nm) of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be harmful to the environment by being toxic to marine life. For this reason, it is best to always look for non-nano-sized mineral filters in sunscreens.
Many brands use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide particles that have been coated with an inert substance to make them easier to mix with the other ingredients. In the case of titanium dioxide, the coating is used to make the particles less photoreactive. The EU requires nano-titanium dioxide particles to be coated otherwise, they react with UV light and release oxidative radicals that can damage the skin.
EU does not require any external coating on nano or non-nano ZnO particles since ZnO does not show this photo-catalytic activity. If you wish to avoid the extra chemicals, it’s best to choose non-nano or sunscreen with uncoated mineral particles.
5. SUNSCREEN MARKETING THAT IS MADE TO MISLEAD YOU
Here we identify and dissect some of the most common, misleading marketing practices used by sunscreen marketers.
Over the past few years, mineral sun filters have been growing in popularity. This is mainly due to growing global concerns about the safety of chemical sun filters. Thus, many brands have started highlighting the mineral filters used in their products. It is common to see statements like “100% pure zinc oxide” written in large letters on the front of a tube.
As a customer, it is completely reasonable to expect the product to contain only zinc oxide as the sun filter. The ingredient list reveals that, in addition to the zinc oxide, the product also contains chemical sun filters.
Some sunscreens only list mineral sun filters as their active ingredients. A chemical ingredient called Butyloctyl Salicylate helps disperse mineral pigments and can boost the SPF of a product. This fact makes its use quite suspicious in “natural mineral sunscreen” formulas.
“Organic” sunscreens that actually contain non-organic and synthetic ingredients
Sunscreens are often marketed as “organic” when they in reality are far from being certified as 100% organic or natural. A closer look at ingredient lists often reveals that products contain only a few organic ingredients The rest of the product is made using normal non-organic and even synthetic ingredients and chemical UV filters.
“Reef-safe” sunscreens that actually contain chemicals that harm aquatic life
The majority of big sunscreen brands have removed the two chemical filters oxybenzone and octinoxate from their formulas. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two chemical filters that have been banned from sun products by for example Hawaii and Florida. But a closer look at the ingredient lists of conventional sunscreens reveals that they contain many other chemical filters, parabens, retinyl palmitate, or fragrances, which can all disturb aquatic life.
For example, one sunscreen brand that is popular among surfers and calls itself reef-safe added the chemical sunscreen booster called Butyloctyl Salicylate in their formulas, which makes the sunscreen unsafe for coral reefs.
Reef protection experts stated that the best thing for reefs is that you wear protective swimwear to minimize the washing of sunscreen into the oceans. Secondly, choosing a sunscreen with the most reef-safe UV filter, non-nano zinc oxide.
6. HOW DO I FIND THE BEST SUNSCREEN FOR ME?
There are unfortunately no shortcuts here. First, decide what level of protection you need and what ingredients you wish to avoid. Then read the whole product label from A to Z. Here’s our checklist for choosing the best sunscreen:
- Broad-spectrum – make sure your product protects against both UVB and UVA rays
- SPF 15 or higher – SPF 15 offers enough for daily, occasional exposure but, as advised by The Skin Cancer Foundation. SPF 30 or higher for necessary for extended outdoor activities, including running, hiking, swimming, and outdoor sports. SPF 30 is also a must if you work outdoors.
- Mineral filters – if you want to avoid all chemical UV filters, you should be on the lookout out for these words on the ingredient list: Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Octinoxate, Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ensulizole, Meradimate, Padimate O, Sulisobenzone, Aminobenzoic acid (PABA), Trolamine salicylate. Also, keep an eye out for the chemical SPF booster, Butyloctyl Salicylate, commonly added to so-called mineral sunscreens.
- Reef-safe – if you want the safest sunscreen for aquatic life, it should only have non-nano zinc oxide as a sun filter (not even the other mineral filter titanium dioxide.) The sunscreen should also be free from parabens, retinyl palmitate, and fragrance/perfume.
- Clean and natural – look for skincare brands and products with ingredients that are actually clean safe, and ideally naturally derived.
- Skincare benefits – if you are going to be wearing sunscreen every day (like you should!) it makes sense to choose one that not only protects but also offer additional skincare benefits. For example added antioxidant, antiaging, and hydrating ingredients.
NUORI’s sunscreens live up to all of the above criteria. Being the first all-natural skincare, non-nano zinc oxide sun protection formulas that offer not only broad-spectrum SPF 30 protection but also antiaging benefits for the skin.
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