The FDA (Federal Drug Agency) and Health Canada have regulations on some claims on labeling but some are unregulated. The majority of sunscreens in Canada come across the border.
In 2018 the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) made patient education a priority. What is recommended is a broad spectrum product with an SPF of minimum 30 or higher and water resistant.
But what does this all mean when reading labels and the back of the bottle?
1) SUN PROTECTION FACTOR – defined as the ratio of minimum redness dose (MED) of protected skin to unprotected. This is been rigorously listed on skin types 1-3 for at least 10 subjects on every product. Many products only cover UVB and not UVA, which equally needs blocking.
2) BROAD SPECTRUM PROTECTION – this is more complicated in testing and involves PMMA plates (polymethylmethacrylate), irradiation, spectrum meters and wavelength measurements. Both UVA/UVB are measured. UVA is also a major contributor to skin again and skin cancers. Technically if products don’t pass the broad spectrum test they must display the following – skin cancer, skin aging alert. Look for that, whether on the front of the bottle or the back and set it back!
3) WATER RESISTANCE – This is tested in an indoor body of fresh water by subjects. The water is maintained at 22-32°C. Moderate exercise is obtained over 20 minutes in water, followed by 15 minutes drying off without toweling. After 2-4 repeat immersion cycles the SPF testing is done to prove water resistance at 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
However, this rigid testing is not really what normal outdoor activity means for many people. Therefore labeling will read – apply after toweling off/apply after sweating/or swimming or every 2 hours. This adds up to a lot of if’s, and’s and possibilities.
Vigorous or contact sports need to apply even more frequently as sunscreens are not tested for durability. To sum up – what is the point of even giving it even regulated status?
4) INSTANT PROTECTION – there really is no such thing. Chemical blockers need at least 15-30 minutes as they have to be absorbed into the skin deep enough to provide a chemical reaction. Certain common chemicals such as avobenzone, oxysalate oxycyrlate, oxybenzone in sunscreens fall into this category, all considered by many studies unhealthy. Physical blockers – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide don’t need to absorb into the skin and are often considered “almost instant”. (Refer to https://laserskincaremedspa.ca/the-confusing-story-of-sunscreen-and-sunblocks-2/)
5) EXTENDED PROTECTION – evidence suggests chemical sunscreens can maintain photo-protection well after the standard 2 hours but repeated application can cause toxic, unhealthy build up. Physical blockers are more photo-stable and theoretically should perform better for long term expectations. If a product claims and user instructions state for extended protection it has submitted a New Drug Application (NDA) with the empiric testing required. Unfortunately, empiric means the treatment is based on “experience and a clinical educated guess in the absence of complete or perfect information” (Wikipedia). With this description it is not reassuring on reliability.
NON-REGULATED CLAIMS – “MYTHS”
1) SWEAT-PROOF/WATER-PROOF/SUNBLOCK – these terms have been banned since 2012 as the FDA calls these claims misleading and untrue
2) “BABY” SUNSCREEN – there is no healthy, safe baby sunscreen. Under 6 months no sunscreen is to be applied and the recommendation is sun avoidance and the baby to be kept covered. Infants greater than 6 months to at least 2 years old, the tendency is to either apply nothing or use standard sunscreen. It is best to look for physical blockers not only to avoid unhealthy chemicals but also the potential irritants and allergens that can sensitize a child.
3) SENSITIVE SKIN & HYPOALLERGENIC – these labels are totally unregulated and can’t be trusted to state what they claim. It is best to just avoid using these sunscreens.
4) NON-COMEDOGENIC – the group most likely to get acne are using sunscreens the least because they tend to make their acne worse. There are no standardized tests. Products that claim this try to avoid using these particular products – isopropyl palmitate, butyl stearate and cocoa butter.
5) ORGANIC – people value the word organic. In the sunscreen industry it is a play on words. The active ingredients don’t meet the NOP (National Organic Product) Seal. The inactive ingredients are recognized and can be labeled. For example, oxybenzone has a carbon molecule and therefore is allowed to pass as organic! It is known to have carcinogenic properties and disrupt hormones in the body and is listed as an 8/10 as a toxic ingredient. Yet the Canadian Cancer Society has found to date to support it as not increasing cancer risk.
6) DERMATOLOGICALLY TESTED/RECOMMENDED/CLINICALLY PROVEN – these words can mean a few test cases or a large trial group. The meanings of these claims vary a lot compared to the reality and cannot be reliably interpreted.
It would be wise to become a back of the tube label reader and ignore the funny jargons and visual distractions on the bottles. Over 30% of the over the counter sunscreens don’t meet the criteria. Here again is the list of chemical sunscreens containing synthetics such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, retinol palmitate, homosalate, octocryline and paraben.
All these chemical sunscreens contain carbon based compounds which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat and then releasing the heat from the skin. Chemical sunscreens should definitely be avoided by pregnant women, oxybenzone in particular which is one of the commonest chemical sunscreens, has been found in breast milk and can interfere with fetal development. The only safe sunscreens for pregnancy should be titanium dioxide and zinc oxide mixes or zinc oxide by itself.
There has been a recent article on Google news from CNN (https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/06/health/sunscreen-bloodstream-fda-study/index.html) regarding sunscreen entering the bloodstream. It states that “Oxybenzone was absorbed into the body at about 50 to 100 times higher concentration than any of these other three chemicals they tested.” Followed by statistics to support other health issues that are caused by this ingredient, such as, testosterone levels, hormone changes, pregnancy and birth issues, allergies and breast milk. Shortly after this article came out CTV also discussed the issue. (https://apple.news/AUTF-ktAtRZGSSmxua0qqwQ)
Taken as a group these chemicals to various degrees are hormone disruptors, cause allergies and sensitivities, and have toxic effects on internal tissue.