by Vicky Uhland
Sun worshippers’ yearning to stop the burning is so strong that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had to extend its comment period on its proposed new sunscreen rule. By the time the hot debate ended late last year, more than 20,000 consumers, manufacturers, retailers, activists and others had voiced their opinions, according to FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle.
The FDA is still sorting through the comments and has no timetable for announcement of the final rule, Chappelle says. That may be because what started as a simple addition to the FDA’s last sunscreen rule, which was enacted in 1999, has become a controversy as sizzling as a Phoenix sidewalk in July. Initially, the FDA had called for a new regulation that would set standards for formulating, testing and labeling the UVA-protection level in sunscreens. Current standards only measure UVB rays (the ones responsible for sunburn, according to the FDA). But UVA rays can also damage the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer, the FDA says. Judging by their comments, U.S. sunscreen producers and users have much more than deadly sun rays on their minds, however. Here’s a look at two of the most burning controversies surrounding both natural and conventional sunscreens.
Sunscreens are divided into two types: chemical and physical. According to Tony Kovacs, N.D., president of UV Natural USA, a San Clemente, Calif.-based natural sunscreen manufacturer, physical sunscreens form a barrier on the skin that reflects the sun and keeps rays from penetrating. The most common physical sunscreens are made from the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that absorb UV rays rather than blocking them, Kovacs says.
Physical sunscreens have the edge in everything but appearance. Not only do zinc and titanium offer 20 percent more protection from UVA rays than their chemical counterparts, but studies show chemical ingredients are readily absorbed into the body, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that released a report last year analyzing almost 1,000 sunscreens and 400 peer-reviewed studies on sunscreen ingredients.
A growing number of retailers are questioning the use of chemical sunscreen ingredients, including Whole Foods Market, which bans chemical sunscreens in its new Premium Body Care standards. So why do natural sunscreen manufacturers continue to use chemicals in their sunscreens?
The problem is that mineral-based sunscreens leave a white film on the body—imagine a lifeguard with zinc oxide on his nose—“and not everybody is comfortable with that. There’s still a large consumer base that doesn’t buy mineral sunscreens,” says Angella Green, brand manager for Boulder, Colo.-based Jason Natural Products, which makes both chemical and physical sunscreens.
Natural and conventional chemical sunscreens tend to use the same chemicals because there are only 17 approved for use in the United States, according to EWG. But many of these chemicals—including common natural sunscreen ingredients 4-methyl-benzylidencamphor, oxybenzone, octylmethoyl-cinnamate, PABA and homosalate—act like estrogens in the body, increasing the risk of breast cancer and uterine damage, according to numerous recent studies. An EWG analysis released in March found that nearly all Americans have traces of oxybenzone in their systems. “Oxybenzone was last reviewed [by the FDA] for safety in the 1970s, but since then significant new evidence has been published on its toxicity and pervasive exposure,” according to an EWG statement.
EWG would like to see some of the 29 sunscreen chemicals that have been approved in the European Union added to the FDA’s list of approved ingredients. EU-approved chemicals such as mexoryl and tinosorb may produce less hormonal disruption and skin penetration than other sunscreen chemicals, says EWG Research Analyst Kristan Markey. They also block UVA rays, unlike most U.S.-approved chemicals.
Some sunscreen manufacturers have solved the pasty, Queen Elizabeth I-like effect of mineral-based sunscreens by reducing the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide ingredients to nanoparticles, which are so minute they virtually disappear on the skin. Nanoparticles are defined as anything 100 nanometers or smaller; one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. These particles are so tiny, it takes 80,000 of them to equal the width of one strand of human hair.
Because nanotechnology is a relatively new science, it’s unregulated in the United States and European Union. But as nanos become more prevalent in personal care products, there is growing concern about whether these petite particles can penetrate the skin and what kind of damage they could cause floating around inside our bodies.
The EWG sunscreen report analyzed 15 peer-reviewed studies on nanoparticles and found that nearly all showed no absorption of nanoized zinc-oxide and titanium-dioxide sunscreen ingredients through healthy skin. But Markey says the studies were done under ideal laboratory conditions and didn’t analyze the penetration potential of nanos on sunburned, scraped or otherwise damaged skin, or on the thinner skin of the underarms and inner thighs. Children and the elderly also have thinner skin than adults, and thus more potential for nano penetration, according to the EWG report. In addition, the report noted that skin around the joints, which is continually flexed and stretched, could be more porous for nanos.
An August 2007 report on nanos in sunscreen from Washington D.C.-based nonprofit environmental network Friends of the Earth says studies show that nanos that do manage to make their way into cells cause severe DNA damage, disrupt the function of cells and even cause cell death. “The jury is still out on how readily and how deeply nanoparticles penetrate skin. There need to be a lot more studies before we can really tell exactly what nanos in sunscreens can do,” says report author Ian Illuminato.
Some natural-sunscreen manufacturers use nanos in their mineral sunscreens. “Nanos are such a complex issue, but it hasn’t really been validated that they penetrate the skin,” says Kathy White, product specialist for Dr. Hauschka Skin Care. The Deerfield, Mass.-based natural personal care company makes a line of sunscreens with titanium dioxide nanoparticles.
Hauschka carefully considered the FDA-approved active ingredients when it formulated its sunscreen line, and concluded “all the other options are irritants, synthetics or have phototoxic reactions, where the ingredients transform into something else in sunlight,” White says. Hauschka liked titanium dioxide’s UVA and UVB ray protection but didn’t want a sunscreen that would appear pasty on the skin, hence the decision to go with nanoparticles. “At this time, there’s nothing else we would use” but nanoized titanium dioxide, White says. “We really feel the [nanoized] minerals are quite safe.”
Hauschka’s sunscreen particles, which are mechanically ground, are 80 to 100 nanometers, compared to nanoengineered particles, which are formed in a lab and are typically 5 to 30 nanometers, White says. Other natural-sunscreen manufacturers, including Jason, Alba Botanica and Nature’s Gate, use micronized minerals, which generally range from 200 to 1,000 nanometers and thus don’t qualify as nanoparticles. But FOE’s Illuminato says even micronized particles might not be safe. “We’ve found studies that show particles in the 200 to 300 nano range also show the properties of nanoparticles.”
Few sunscreen companies will reveal the size of the mineral particles they use in their formulations. FOE polled 128 sunscreen manufacturers and was only able to get nano data on 33 products. Since there are no governmental regulations, consumers have to take manufacturers’ guarantees that their sunscreens don’t use nanoparticles.
The FDA’s new sunscreen rule might address nanoparticles and chemicals, Chappelle says. Or it might not. Until then, companies like Jason and Dr. Hauschka will watch, wait and formulate. “We’re always looking to see what are our natural-sunscreen options going forward,” says Jason’s Green.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p. 30,32