It’s Been a Big Decade for Sunscreen—so We’ve Filtered What You Need to Know About the State of SPF

Photo: Stocksy/Duet Postscriptum
The year is 2009. Barack Obama is president. Everyone’s talking about Kanye interrupting T. Swift on stage during the VMAs. Apple launches the iPhone 3G. And people are taking selfies with those brand-new devices to show off their sun-kissed skin, glistening with tanning oil. Flash forward to the present and instead of whipping out the baby oil, people are now bragging about who's scoring higher on the SPF scale (bonus points if you've got zinc). The past decade has seen massive changes in all areas of our lives, sun protection attitudes included, and while many of these are positive, there are both existing and new challenges present in the quest to keep people safe from the sun.

“There’s still so much confusion and misunderstanding around sun protection,” says New York City dermatologist Elizabeth Hale, MD, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation. “We know that sun exposure is responsible for over 90 percent of all types of skin cancer and contributes to 90 percent of premature skin aging. We need people to practice safe sun habits and get in to dermatologists for skin checks. That’s the most important point and that hasn’t changed,” she says. So, what has?

One of the greatest tangible differences from 10 years ago is the shift away from sun worship (aka tanning) and towards sun protection (we know tanning of any kind damages DNA and tanning in a bed ups a person's risk of melanoma by an astounding 75 percent). As SPF has found its way into favor, big beauty has jumped on the sunscreen bandwagon in a big way. You can now find SPF in everything from foundations to serums to lip balms, and that's in addition to the fact that regular-old SPF is becoming much more advanced and cosmetically elegant. “Formulation advances mean you can now get sun protection in delivery systems that suit every need, from sprays to gels to lotions to sticks,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York City dermatologist. “There are also sunscreens with added ingredients to do more than just protect you from the sun, and can also help do things like repair the skin barrier,” he adds.

Dr. Hale agrees, and points out that mineral sunscreens (which use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect the sun's rays) in particular have come a long way in becoming more pleasant to use. They're no longer just the thick, goopy, white zinc slathered on the pool lifeguard’s nose, but are now available in a wide array of different formulas that are non-chalky and truly feel nice on your skin. And because of this, they're better able to suit a wide range of skin tones. So why isn't everyone slathering them on 365?

The current challenges SPF is up against

While finding an SPF that works with your skin type and skin tone is a great first piece of the protection puzzle, a lack of compliance in terms of daily, year-round application remains. “There’s still this misunderstanding that it’s enough to just wear sunscreen in the summer, but most sun damage is caused by the small amounts of cumulative exposure we get day in and day out,” says Dr. Hale.

And despite some positive changes, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of new invasive melanoma cases diagnosed annually has increased by 54 percent since 2009. The number of new melanoma cases diagnosed in 2019 alone are estimated to increase by over 7 percent. The good news is that the number of melanoma deaths are estimated to decrease by 22 percent this year—so what gives? “Right now, we’re really good at secondary prevention, or preventing melanoma deaths, because dermatologists are catching these skin cancers early,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “But we need to get better at primary prevention so that they’re not even occurring in the first place.” It goes back to the importance of those daily sunscreen habits; studies have shown that if people use sunscreen the way they should, we would see less melanomas, he adds. Seems pretty cut and dry, no?

It's complicated. Because despite being proven as an effective way to fend off the sun's rays and therefore skin cancer, some (not necessarily founded) concerns have arisen about SPF. Earlier this year, some scare-tactic headlines appeared in relation to a small FDA study of 24 participants found that four ingredients found in chemical sunscreens were detectable in the blood at levels higher than a threshold set by the FDA back in 2016. However, even the FDA was quick to say "these results do not mean that the ingredients are unsafe." As cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong, PhD pointed out on LabMuffin, we've known for decades that chemical sunscreens can make their way into the blood.

The point of the study, which was glossed over in much of the alarmist media coverage, was simply that the FDA sought more information regarding the SPF filters that are currently in use in the United States in order to update their usage recommendations. “Sunscreen has been used for decades with no harmful proven effects. The risk of not applying sunscreen outweighs the risk of applying it, because we know for certain that melanoma can kill you,” says Dr. Zeichner. The FDA is on it as we speak, working to determine which sunscreen filters are best to keep in use, and which are best fit for the history books.

What's more, the chemical sunscreen controversy extends beyond consumer health to environmental concerns as well; two common sunscreen ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been shown to concentrate in coral reefs, which is why the ingredients have been banned entirely in Hawaii and Key West, Florida. Still, it’d be inaccurate to link the destruction of coral reefs solely to these chemicals. “It’s important to remember that, according to prominent environmental organizations worldwide, the cause of coral decline is global climate change, [which leads] to high ocean temperatures, elevated water levels, and ocean acidification from increased global carbon dioxide,” says Menas Kizoulis, scientific engagement director, skin health at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.

The bottom line for all of these issues: If you’re concerned about chemicals in your bloodstream and/or chemicals in the ocean, stick with mineral sunscreen formulas such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Per Dr. Hale’s earlier point on the advancements in these products, there are more options out there than ever before, all of which are better than ever.

What's ahead for the future of sunscreen

As for the next 10 years: While we don’t have a crystal ball to predict what kind of self-driving cars and Apple products we’ll be using come 2029, it’s safe to say that there are more advancements in the sun protection industry to come. Dr. Hale thinks oral supplements as a secondary line of defense will become more and more popular. A fern-derived antioxidant known as polypodium leucotomos, found in products like Heliocare ($28), has been shown in studies to reduce the effects of UV exposure. We can also expect for focus to shift to how different types of light, namely blue light from electronic screens, affect our skin. Dr. Zeichner hopes for new and improved sunscreen ingredients to deliver broader UV protection. And Kizoulis points out that continued innovations in formulations will help more people wear it every day, and that the finalization of FDA rule (which is expected truly any day) regulating sunscreens will have a huge impact on how products are labeled and the SPF levels available to consumers.

But let’s not forget the next generation. “We’re at a revolutionary time with sun protection because we have a whole generation of kids who aren’t being exposed to the sun the way their parents were,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Kids aren’t getting those blistering sun burns in childhood the same way they used to.” The hope is that this correlates with both lower skin cancer rates in the future, as well as safe sun habits and attitudes that are engrained at a very early age. Stay tuned.

If you've had your SPF since 2009, it's time to toss it, pals. And while we're on the subject of what's changed in 10 years, yoga has seen a massive surge.

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