For those who don’t know our company backstory, CyberDERM was created by one of its founding physicians to make sunscreens that were safe enough for pregnant women to use every day. The story goes that my father, Dr. Denis Dudley, a double board certified endocrinologist and OB/GYN specializing in high-risk pregnancy was asked by a patient about sunscreens. It would have been the early nineties and his honest answer was that he did not know. Fortunately, his lovely and very talented wife (and my mother) was a dermatologist so with the help of an amazing chemist as their partner- they began the decade long process of researching skincare and specifically sunscreens and its effect on our health and well-being.
I came to the company in 2008 and started with getting our first formula into a bottle that is now known as Every Morning Sun Whip SPF 25. Fast forward 7 years, and I’m now in the position of being pregnant with my first child. Our company ethos has all of a sudden become extremely personal. I know first hand what it’s like to stand in the pharmacy aisle, scouring ingredients of everything from Tums to shampoo and questioning whether it’s ok to use.
Pregnancy has the most stringent of all life stages when it comes to reconsidering everything that is part of our daily life. I’ve personally been reading the MotherRisk website like its my newfound manual to life. I appreciate how balanced and informative it is because there is a plentitude of information on the internet. I’ve learned forums are not the best source as you get a lot of anecdotal stories that’s often contradictory.
So, what’s the story with sunscreen in pregnancy? Should you be using it and what should you avoid?
I think you can guess that I’m going to say, yes, you should use it and you should be even more careful about applying it than before. Melasma is a real and very frustrating condition. Unlike what I read in some pregnancy forums, it does not just resolve always after pregnancy. Nor is it as simple as whisking away to your doctor for a light peel or laser treatment. I’ve helped first hand women suffering from melasma. Most are very self-conscious about it. Most have not found a ‘silver-bullet’ to treat it, even in our sister clinic that has 20 light based ‘lasers’, access to any peel and/or topical. It’s a process treating it- a slow and deliberate one. Most once they get it- are plagued with the prevention/treatment dance for the rest of their lives.
What to look for in Sunscreen?
Avoid oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene and non-encapsulated octinoxate and any formula that contains parabens in its non-medicinal ingredients. That’s probably not a shocking recommendation if you’ve used our products for a while. We’ve been long time critics of oxybenzone especially. I’ve based that on it being a photo-allergen and since 2012, I’ve based it on the recommendations of the WHO report on Endocrine Disruptors. The report dismisses the idea that small doses of any potential endocrine disruptor can’t have a large impact on our health. It also states that fetal exposure, as well as childhood and adolescent exposure, are critical windows that can have life long effects. In simple terms- why risk it?
In pregnancy, we use the litmus test of whether a substance is absorbed into your body and whether levels are detectable. Oxybenzone clearly does get absorbed into the body- as confirmed by the CDC study that stated it was in 97% of a random sample of 2000 Americans. Avobenzone, octocrylene and non-encapsulated octinoxate all have smaller molecular weights than 500 Daltons. 500 Daltons is the generally accepted threshold for determining whether something can get absorbed past our outermost dead layer of skin.
Encapsulating smaller molecules in materials like silica can make them much larger-well past the 500 Dalton threshold. Our encapsulated octinoxate is roughly in the 5-7 micron range, making it act like a large particle based filter. Encapsulation can be a huge innovation in the future where even two normally incompatible ingredients, like avobenzone and octinoxate, could be combined in the same formula with no risk of photo-degradation. It’s unlikely though that we will see these new technologies on masse in commercially available sunscreens as they tend to be much more expensive than their non-encapsulated versions. If you see any of the above filters (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene)- you can most likely assume they are not encapsulated at this present moment unless they state specifically otherwise. If you’re not sure, reach out and ask the brand.
Of course, once you remove these filters as options, you’re not left with many alternatives if you live in North America. In the future, I hope to see two European ingredients Tinosorb S and Tinosorb M get approval in North America. These are large particle based filters that offer excellent UVA/UVB protection. They’ll be a huge boon to our sunscreen market if and when they come. Due to their large particle size and excellent photo-stability, they are as controversy-free as I’ve seen of any sunscreen ingredient.
Until then, you are essentially left with zinc oxide as your main preferred ingredient. You need at least 10% of zinc oxide in your product and in pregnancy, I’d recommend to stick to higher concentrations for the added UVA protection. To me, the issue of nano versus non-nano is a bit of a red herring. It’s also well accepted that in the world of sunscreens, nano particles are huge compared to traditional low molecular weight filters. If you are still worried, repeated studies have shown that it does not go past the stratum corneum. You can look for the term non-nano on your label but since definitions of what constitutes nano vary- what might be non-nano to some could be nano to others. As proof of that, although we use the same form of zinc oxide in both formulas- it’s considered non-nano by one division in Health Canada but considered nano by another.
Zinc oxide can be combined with another filter like titanium dioxide or an encapsulated version of another non-mineral filter. Just remember- they are a bonus so to speak in terms of added protection mostly within the UVB range but the essential is to look for a high concentration of zinc oxide for truly balanced protection. Combine daily use with other sun protective habits like glasses, hats and seeking shade and you’ll be a healthy and happy mama-to-be in the sun protection department.