What Sunscreen Is Right, Right Now? Industry Vets Unpack the Topic Ahead of Summer

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Photo: Getty/Diane Villadsen
At this point, the dangers of unprotected sun exposure are broadly understood as: bare skin + sun = damage that can range from pigmentation and fine lines to cancerous cells. Much of the confusion, in 2020, lies with what version of sun protection is the healthiest. This is a topic that can drum up quite a debate amongst sunscreen manufacturers and skin-care experts. The general agreement is that wearing SPF is better than not wearing it, especially when we’re more sensitive to sun than usual after months spent indoors.

Arash Akhavan, MD, dermatologist and founder of New York City’s Dermatology and Laser Group, understands the need to explain why sun protection is important, beyond the burn. “Up until recently, UVB rays have been the primary focus for sunscreen manufacturers. UVB rays are the energy that is most responsible for sunburns, and they also cause DNA damage in skin cells leading to skin cancers. The SPF factor of a sunscreen is solely based on its ability to protect skin from these UVB rays,” he explains.

Unfortunately, when the sun shines upon you, UVB isn't all that you're soaking up. “In recent years, the importance of UVA as a cause of skin concerns has become more well known. UVA is a longer wavelength UV radiation that penetrates deeper into the skin, causing DNA damage, leading to increased skin cancer risk as well as early aging. Sunscreens labeled as ‘broad spectrum’ offer some protection against UVA, but measuring protection against this arguably more problematic part of the UV spectrum is not as well standardized, which something the FDA stated in 2019 it intended to improve.”

Dr. Akhavan points out that without adequate UVA protection, a sunscreen with high SPF could protect against UVB-induced sunburns, conceivably allowing a person to sit out in the sun longer, increasing their exposure to harmful UVA rays. This means that because you can’t see the damage happening in real time, you may not realize you aren’t protected. “Until more stringent regulations of UVA protection in sunscreens is established, it is best to look for sunscreens that contain either the mineral sunscreen ingredients zinc oxide—with or without titanium dioxide—or the chemical ingredient avobenzone,” he advises. More on what those are now.

Understanding the sunscreen lingo

“A recent Neutrogena Harris Poll revealed that 42 percent of Americans admit they are not at all sure what type of sunscreen they use,” says Menas Kizoulis, Johnson & Johnson Scientific Engagement Director of Global Skin Health, who considers sunscreen formulation both an art and a science. Part of the reason why this knowledge level matters is that compliance in wearing sunscreen largely hinges on whether or not a formula feels cosmetically elegant on skin—something mineral SPFs have long struggled to prove.

Mineral sunscreens use the physical filters known as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (in raw form, they both look like ground-up chalk). These formulas are meant to form a physical barrier that sits atop the skin and reflect the sun's rays back, so in order for them to do their jobs properly, to some extent, they’re visible on skin. "Mineral sunscreens can be more difficult to effectively formulate than chemical sunscreens,” Kizoulis notes, adding that Neutrogena has become the number one selling brand of adult mineral sunscreen in the U.S.

What's more, because there is no penetration of the active ingredient into the skin, physical blockers have become synonymous with "clean" formulas; however, Kizoulis reminds us that's not always the case when ingredients are mined, processed, coated, and combined with other compounds to become sunscreen. “When properly formulated, mineral sunscreens can provide equal levels of broad spectrum protection up to SPF 60," he says. "But higher SPF values require chemical UV filters."

Why not just go for chemical filters, in that case? Here's where it get's tricky. Chemical sunscreens tap "organic filters" (aka: carbon-containing ones that you might study in Organic Chemistry sophomore year in college, rather than "organic" meaning raised without pesticides) such as avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. These filter work by sinking into skin, where they are able to absorb UV radiation and convert it to heat that's released. And for some chemical filters can be irritating to the skin, resulting in contact dermatitis.

Because these SPFs actually need to get into the skin, they're often transparent (if a little shiny) on application. “Chemical sunscreen formulas tend to spread more easily and are often non-whitening, which is a key driver of compliance,” says Kizoulis. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 100+ ($9) relies on chemicals like oxybenzone and avobenzone for its best-selling transparent, ultra-high SPF formula.

Higher SPF doesn't equate to lower maintenance

As the SPF limitations of mineral sunscreens are concerned, many experts take issue with the false reassurance higher labels imbue. “Consumers relying primarily on high SPF has always been one of my biggest concerns and topics for sunscreen education," says Philadephia-based dermatologist Christina Lee Chung, MD, FAAD. “The key to properly protecting one's skin from the sun using sunscreen is to reapply every one to two hours depending on activity level and, scientifically, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 is more than enough.”

She notes that a key factor in the continued use of chemical sunscreens is that some mineral sunscreens have a tendency to leave a white cast when applied. “This can make it cosmetically difficult for persons of color to use. I am encouraged that the major sunscreen companies have recognized this challenge and are producing tinted mineral sunscreens and sunscreens that blend across skin tones, but darkly-pigmented individuals may still find it difficult to identify a mineral sunscreen that works for them,” says Dr. Chung.

Cosmetic options that offer a range of tinted shades like Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30 ($33), Yensa Skin on Skin BC Foundation SPF 40 ($38) and Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40 ($46) have popularized mineral coverage as foundation alternatives, while EleVen by Venus Williams On-The-Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 ($42) offers an invisible base layer that disappears into all skin tones. Still, if you prefer a shield of crystal-clear SPF 70 sport spray before heading outside for a sweat, chemical is still often the easiest route. “For both sun protection and to prevent age-related dyspigmentation, using chemical sunscreens is certainly preferable to no sunscreen,” Dr. Chung reinforces.

Re-defining reef safety with SPF

And what about the toxicity of some chemical screens for your body and the planet? Farmacy’s antioxidant-rich Green Defense Daily Mineral Sunscreen ($36) and Tizo Sheerfoam Body & Face Sunscreen ($38) offer transparent mineral protection sans chemical filters, while brands like Supergoop! and COOLA have emerged as leaders in the clean beauty space while incorporating chemicals. COOLA Marketing Director, Mykella Gannon shares that while there is no specific test to classify a sunscreen as reef-safe, COOLA’s entire Mineral Collection is reef-friendly and all of the brand’s Classic Sunscreens adhere to the reef-safe guidelines, meaning they are free of chemical actives oxybenzone and octinoxate.

“Sunscreen ingredients fall into two categories: classic filters and physical filters. For a classic sunscreen that is also reef-friendly, look for ingredients like homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone. The first three help with UVB protection while the latter two help with UVA protection,” she notes. The line’s Classic Body Organic Sunscreen Spray ($25) reaches an SPF of 70 thanks to the latter three chemicals, which are not on the coral-harming list.

We were the first sunscreen brand to develop a clean chemical formula without oxybenzone in 2007, and earlier this year, we introduced a brand redesign and product reformulation for our family of SPFs, making our full line reef-safe with the removal of octinoxate,” says Holly Thaggard, founder of Supergoop!, which uses the mineral-to-chemical spectrum with offerings that range from 100 percent mineral formulas like Zincscreen lotion ($42) to chemical Unseen Sunscreen ($34) that relies on avobenzone and octocrylene.

While chemical filters tend to get a bad rap when it comes to the environment, physical filters aren't always innocent. “With regards to mineral sunscreens, it is generally accepted that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are reef safe. However, some of the formulations in these types of sunscreens have recently evolved such that their ingredients have been reduced to nanoparticles (less than 100 nanometers)," says Orit Markowitz, Director Pigmented Lesions & Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai. "The positive effect is that these smaller particles help to eliminate the white film associated with the application of physical sunscreen and makes it smoother to apply. Unfortunately, these nanoparticles are now thought to have a detrimental effect on coral reefs and other small marine life.”

The future of SPF in America

It’s hard to talk about SPF without discussing the conversation surrounding chemical filters, which will no doubt have an impact on the future of SPF. “The FDA, which regulates all sunscreen products, hasn’t labeled any sunscreens as unsafe, but as of February 21, 2019, they have proposed a rule to update regulatory requirements for sunscreen products sold in the United States,” says West Hollywood cosmetic dermatologist Jason Emer, MD. Those proposed restrictions could have implications for the active ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens including: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, ecamsule, and octinoxate.

According to Dr. Emer, ‘penetration enhancers’ in chemical formulas can also cause ingredients to soak into your body. A small randomized clinical trial published last May in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that four common sunscreen chemicals–avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule–are absorbed into the bloodstream at significantly greater levels than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter. “That’s far above the amount at which the FDA requires topical medications to undergo safety studies to determine possible toxic effects,” says Dr. Emer.

While we have known for some time that chemical filters are absorbed into the blood, the levels at which this study identified them to be present is importantly why the FDA is taking a closer look. “The FDA has recommended that further tests be done to assess its safety. Although avobenzone has never been linked to specific medical issues, the fact that known safe alternatives exist makes it a less attractive option," says Dr. Akahavan.

While sunscreen recommendations vary widely depending on the person polled, many of the dermatologists we spoke with like mineral formulas. Dr. Akhavan, for example, generally recommends using mineral sunscreens whenever possible, especially since the aforementioned mineral sunscreen ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were “the only two ingredients available in the U.S. that the FDA proposed to be safe in its well-publicized 2019 sunscreen document.”

Formulas like VERSED’s non-nano Guards Up Daily Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 35 ($22), Josie Maran’s Whipped Argan Oil Mineral SPF 45 Body Butter ($42), CōTZ new lightweight foam technology in their Silky Foam SPF 30 ($27), and Tarte’s talc-free SEA Set & Protect Mineral Sunscreen Powder SPF 30 ($28) avoid the ingredient entirely.

“In conclusion, chemical and mineral sunscreens act in different ways, but are both effective at providing broad spectrum protection against damaging UVA and UVB rays,” says Dr. Emer. “With that said, sunscreen is essential for protection against developing skin cancer and photoaging.” Until further guidelines are set forth, it’s up to us, as consumers, to make the choice of what sun protection recipe we feel most comfortable wearing, purchasing, and supporting.

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