Sunscreens are not what they used to be. In the 1970s and 1980s, what mattered was a deep tan and UV radiation protection barely received a mention. But devastating skin cancer figures forced a rule change in a market worth about 1,000 million dollars in the USA alone and which relies on innovation to diversify.
Correctly labelling a sunscreen is no trivial task. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken more than 30 years to bring order to the sunscreen market and set standards to test the effectiveness of products. From 18 June 2012, sunscreens sold in the USA have to comply with new rules established by the FDA. They are required to be "broad spectrum”, i.e., they must protect against both UVA (responsible for premature ageing) and UVB (responsible for sunburn) and they must indicate how many minutes they remain effective after immersion in water.
In addition, products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of under 15 must carry a warning that this is insufficient protection against skin cancer and those with an SPF over 50 may not claim that the product to be a “total sunblock", because this concept is misleading.
What’s happening in Europe?
The European Commission defined labelling requirements for solar products in 2006, with the goal of putting some order on SPF numbers, which could go from as low as 4 to the very high 60. After much public consultation, the factors were reduced to eight, and thus SPF below 6 were eliminated and those above 50 included in 50+.
But despite the effort to improve consumer information, in 2008 the EU warned that 30% of the creams that were sold did not respect labelling requirements for UVA and UVB rays. More recently, in June 2013 the Spanish Consumers’ Association (OCU) claimed to have found four brands of sunscreen with a real SPF factor lower than advertised. The brands, of course, confirmed the “safety, effectiveness and quality of their products.”
To gild the lily, some manufacturers are starting to provide new information with the aim of differentiating their products. Some claim to avoid allergens and poorly photostable substances, while others incorporate biological agents with antioxidants that protect the skin from free radical formation and premature ageing.
Manufacturers also play with improvements to texture or smell so as to compete with new anti-ageing makeups with sunscreen or beta-carotene capsules that promise "a spectacular tan." The choice for the consumer is endless.
So what do I buy?
There are formulas for all tastes: cream, gel, spray, stick, etc. But above all, it is important to keep in mind who is targeted by the product (child or adult), the phototype of the person who will use it, the application area (face, body, bald head) and skin type (dry, normal, oily, prone to acne). We must also consider the time of day, the season and the location (altitude and geographical area).
Bearing these factors in mind, the FDA recommends broad-spectrum sunscreen products with an SPF of between 15 and 50 and also indicates that sprays are not advisable, especially for children since they could inhale them. Canadian health authorities indicate that creams should preferably not contain vitamin A (retinol or derivatives such as retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate) as it increases sun sensitivity.
Finally, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) adds that it is better not to buy products containing oxybenzone due to its hormonal effects, although many scientists claim that these effects are insignificant. EWG also states that it is better to choose products with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients.
In short, we need to be able to decipher labels if we want to keep our skin healthy and in good condition.