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All mineral sunscreens are not created equal

Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are becoming the industry standard for safety and efficacy. But new research from the Environmental Working Group raises questions about concentrations of active ingredients in some products.

Dermatologists, retailers and consumer groups are increasingly recommending mineral sunscreen products for their high performance and safer ingredient profile. But there’s one major mineral misstep the industry needs to address now: using plant-based ingredients that are not FDA approved to get higher SPF values. Yeah, that’s bad. And it’s happening more and more often, according to the Environmental Working Group. That means that something good can actually be bad if we don’t pay enough attention or ask the right questions. 

Why mineral sunscreens are better

The mineral sunscreen industry has gained popularity in recent years due to increased awareness about its efficacy and safety. Traditionally, dermatologists have steered people toward chemical sunscreens or those using "soluble filters," which are easily absorbed by the skin but may not effectively shield from UVB and UVA rays, according to Denis Dudley, MD, an endocrinologist who has turned his attention to researching and formulating safe sun care products. "Most dermatology literature and the information pamphlets from the professional organizations tend to repeat the industry position that still advocates using soluble filters that give UVB-biased and incomplete protection," Dudley says. "Rising cancer rates suggest the strategy has failed and the obvious weak link is the use of sunscreens."

But that dialogue is starting to change, thanks to experts such as Dudley and consumer health advocacy organizations like the EWG. They say one of the biggest problems with many sunscreens today is their tendency to focus only on UVB rays (SPF is what tells you UVB protection) but ignore UVA rays, which are linked to photoaging and skin cancer. "The global sunscreen market is dominated by UVB-biased sunscreens, particularly in North America," adds Dudley. "They mostly prevent UVB effects like sunburn to some degree but offer little or no protection against skin cancer or photoaging, where UVA plays a major role."

In addition to poor protection from UVA rays, chemical ingredients—particularly oxybenzone—have been linked to hormone disruption. The equally bad news is that these chemical ingredients easily work their way into the body. The CDC reports that close to 97 percent of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies; another study found that 85 percent of nursing mothers in the European Union have at least one UV filter in their breast milk.

The use of hormone disruptors is one of several red flags the EWG has found to be common in sun care products as it researches its annual Guide to Sunscreens. "We will continue to see the same trends—high SPFs, hormone disruptors, vitamin A, chemical sprays," all of which have been shown to be unsafe or misleading in the past, according to Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst. While not all dermatologists agree on the dangers of the chemicals used in some sunscreens, they are increasingly recommending minerals over chemicals for their stability and broad-spectrum coverage. Austin-based dermatologist Ted Lain, MD, says "there are no studies performed with adequate scientific rigor that show any safety issues with current sunscreen ingredients."

However, like Dudley, he recommends products containing minerals zinc oxide and titanium oxide to his patients. And most brands are now offering at least one mineral option, according to Lunder.

Mineral sunscreen’s misstep

Consensus that mineral sunscreens are superior is forming. But not all mineral sunscreens are created equal—an issue that was illuminated as the EWG researched its 2017 guide, which is set to come out this month. "One thing we are responding to here is that we do see growing SPF values with mineral sunscreens and we see very low concentrations of active ingredients in some of them," Lunder says. The EWG found that companies may be using plant-based antioxidants, which are not approved active sunscreen ingredients, to increase SPF values and hence make the product appear to have greater UV protection. While the research is still young on this topic, it’s important for companies to formulate with adequate concentrations of the active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Recommendations for high concentrations of zinc oxide in a product are growing, ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent. "Since zinc oxide is the only safe UVA or broad spectrum filter available to most consumers in North America, look for adequate amounts," says Dudley, who tends to recommend 20 percent when used alone (this is challenging to find in most products, however) and 15 percent when used with 7.5 percent titanium dioxide. As for other antioxidants and plant-based oils, extracts and more … they should be considered perks, but shouldn’t be factored into sun protection until they get the OK as UV-protectors from the FDA.

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