The natural products industry is falling down on the job when it comes to sunscreens.
In a blistering new report, the Environmental Working Group announced that three out of five sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns.
And those products that tout 'natural' or 'organic' in their labeling "did relatively similar to the product category as a whole," said Dave Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist with the EWG and a co-author of the study. "I think that is because terms like 'natural' and 'organic' are a manufacturer-defined term, and from a consumer point of view, it's quite confusing."
In the new study, EWG tested 1,572 products that promise sun protection, including sport creams, skin moisturizers, and lip balms, ranking them from 0 to 10 in the categories of 'recommended,' 'caution' or 'avoid'.
Some of the most recognizable consumer brands fared poorly, including Coppertone, Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Hawaiian Tropic.
Some leading brands in the natural product industry also did not fare well. Aubrey Organics' product line scored in the 'caution' category due to their low SPF. Avalon Organics' line earned a 'caution' due to low SPF and, in two products, oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone is a compound that mimics estrogen, and which some researchers have linked to cancer. Some fragrances can trigger allergies and may impact fertility.
The study is part of a three-year campaign launched by the nonprofit research group after it found that only 29 percent of products tested contained strong UVA filters—the sun rays linked to skin damage, immunity problems and skin cancer. (The Food and Drug Administration only requires that sunscreens block UVB, the rays responsible for sunburn, not UVA.)
On the upside, 70 percent of the products tested this did year contain UVA protection. On the downside, much of this UVA protection "is still too thin to save your skin," the report stated. Five percent of the products with high SPF ratings (30 or over) contained no UVA protection at all.
"Few sunscreens live up to their advertising claims, and the federal government is powerless to make them," the group says. "The FDA has been promising to regulate sunscreens since 1978, when gasoline was 63 cents a gallon and the Bee Gees' 'Saturday Night Fever' topped the charts. Think 30-something years is long enough?"
Bad news spells opportunity
What all of this bad news means, however, is that natural product manufacturers have a genuine opportunity to rise to the occasion. It's a chance to beat their conventional counterparts at providing genuinely beneficial sunscreen products.
How can they go about doing so?
"You need to ensure you are using the safest available ingredients, while maintaining efficacy," Andrews said.
In terms of UV protection, there are only 17 approved UV-blockers, and they typically make up 10-40 per cent of the final product, Andrews said. The two most important are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because they provide broadband UVA and UVB protection, and have lower risk.
"These are both common minerals, and they are most effective in smaller particle sizes," Andrews said. "They are ground to a very fine powder and put into a chemical mixture that allows you to spread it on your skin. The smaller you get, the more effective it becomes at blocking UV, and it also becomes more transparent."
This means that both ingredient content, and the methods of manufacture, are important in creating effective sunscreens. Responsible companies should review the safety of each ingredient, as well as the formulated product, at a lab experienced in testing sunscreens, such as Suncare Research Laboratories in Winston Salem, NC.
What you put into a sunscreen is just as important as what you leave out. One of the most bewildering aspects of EWG's study results is the high number of companies using ingredients with questionable side effects. Why do they use them at all?
"It's an interesting question," Andrews said. "Some of it is historical use—these are some of the first chemicals that were found to prevent sunburn. For example, some products in the 'natural' category state that they are PABA-free, even though none of the products in this category use this chemical anymore."
Oxybenzone, a UV blocker but also a hormone-disrupter, continues to be widely used. "It's a chemical that has been found in the urine of 97 per cent of Americans," Andrews said. "On the upside, our study found that 19 per cent fewer products use oxybenzone this year than last year."
Other reasons for the inclusion of harmful ingredients include cost, the favorable sensory characteristics it imparts to the product, or the fragrance it adds.
"A number of fragrances are known to have health effects and to bioaccumulate," Andrews said.
One final issue that sometimes draws attention in the 'natural' industry is the use of nanoparticles to make the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide extremely small, thereby increasing their efficacy.
"There has been some concern that they might have the ability to penetrate beyond the skin," Andrews said. "We have done a comprehensive review of the literature, and what I can tell you is that we don't necessarily see that as a concern. Some of the organic products have tended to make a point of staying on the large side of the nanoparticle spectrum—100 nanometers as opposed to 30 nanometers—simply to allay these concerns. As long as they are able to prove efficacy, I don't think there is anything wrong with that."
EWG has compiled a list of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide suppliers and their primary particle sizes. Click here to view.
As for Andrews, what is his sunscreen of choice?
"We use Badger SPF 30, which is a 20 per cent zinc product that uses BASF particles about 80 nanometers in size. We have a 1-year-old, and we are testing out a range of products, but that is what we are using right now," he said.