Why is there panic and confusion in the marketplace?
The recent article from Vancity Buzz with the headline, “Neutrogena is the number one sunscreen to avoid, says the EWG” that we shared on our Facebook page has absolutely gone viral. It was shared over 480,000 times. I didn’t think much of it when I posted it- it’s essentially a reiteration of the EWG’s Annual Sunscreen Report from this past May. It’s also the same complaint that the EWG has been making year after year and it’s one that I agree with for the most part.
For the first time a picture of some of the most popular sunscreens in the market appeared in a story with a big red warning sign. I know a lot of parents especially were crestfallen when they saw a brand they had been using on their kids since forever. Before starting work at CyberDERM, I’d used many of those so-called no-no brands my whole life (that is until an aerosol spray version leaked in my purse and took off the paint!). A lot of others were outright mad by the article, claiming it was fear mongering and based on pseudo science.
I thought I’d share my take on the article and a couple of other comments that I’ve seen with similar articles. I’ve been immersed in the world of sunscreens for 7 years now. I’m neither a scientist nor a physician and I’m obviously involved with a competitor’s brand so feel free to take my opinion with as many grains of salt as you see fit.
The deal with ‘chemical’ filters
I always put the term ‘chemical’ in quotation marks because this distinction makes technical people roll their eyes. Technically, everything is a chemical and not all chemicals or synthetics as most people are intending to say are bad for us. Other times, the term physical blocker is used to describe mineral based filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to differentiate from those that are meant to absorb UV light. That distinction is not purely accurate either since many of the mineral filters now do some absorbing and scattering of UV light.
Within our R&D department, we prefer the term particulate-based filters vs. non-particulate based filters. Particulate-based filters include zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, encapsulated filters that are larger than a micron, and Tinosorb S and M. Non-particulate based filters are most of the conventional ones that you would see in mass-market products and include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate (non-encapsulated version).
The EWG is exceptionally critical of oxybenzone. We’d argue that all of these filters have potential issues because they are smaller than the 500 Dalton threshold. Dalton is a measurement of something’s molecular weight and it’s well established that anything below 500 Daltons can enter through the skin into our bloodstream. For many people, they simply don’t want to use something that enters the body if they have the choice.
There is then the issue of whether these filters mimic hormones in our body. The answer is that there is no definitive answer at this point. It would be difficult to create a study that would give a definitive answer so I believe you have to fall back on your personal comfort level of risk. I would say that the argument that only small amounts are ever detected in human studies misses a crucial point. Dosage based arguments for endocrine disruptors don’t hold up since it’s also well established that dosage and effect are not linearly correlated in this regard. In fact, smaller doses of endocrine disruptors can have a disproportionately large effect, sometimes even larger than large doses. The WHO report from 2012 made this quite clear.
Why would the FDA and Health Canada approve something if it’s not safe?
The FDA and Health Canada have both admitted that they are behind in reviewing the sunscreen monograph. Recently, in the US, the PASS coalition put the FDA in the hot seat for being a decade behind in reviewing submissions. The Sunscreen Innovation Act was passed in late 2014 and the onus was set on the FDA to make some timely decisions. The FDA instead has recently said that the new filters under review require a substantial amount more of clinical data to prove their safety. A part of the issue, they would like exhaustive studies to show that these newer filters are not absorbed into the body or pose any health risks if they are. They dismiss the real market use of these filters in other regulatory territories like the EU as not being sufficient enough.
I take exception with their argument on multiple levels but I also find it frustrating that they are willing to block new ingredients based on this premise, but they are not willing to review current filters by the same criteria. For some unknown reason, current filters seemed to have been grandfathered into acceptance and are past the point of further review- despite mounting evidence.
By blocking some of the safest and least controversial UV filters, like the Tinosorbs (which are very large particulate-based filters), the FDA and Canada are forcing consumers to use filters that aren’t as effective and with iffy safety findings. I also think it’s worth mentioning that the FDA and Health Canada have not put a complete ban on these new ingredients in question. In the US, L’Oreal paid for the very expensive process of getting one of their patented filters approved by the FDA. It’s just restricted for use by one brand for the exclusive use in their La Roche-Posay formula. (Side note- by expensive I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars). In Canada, you can find 9 formulas that contain Tinosorb S and M. These companies again though had to pay for an outside monograph review process (a process that is much cheaper than the US version, costing roughly $50-60 K, about 25-50 times more expensive than the normal approval method) to have formula specific usage of these ingredients. Therefore, it’s not to say that the FDA or Health Canada think these new filters completely unsafe that they can’t come into their respective markets at all- there is just a hefty entrance fee.
Finally, I’ve also seen mention that if a sunscreen has the seal of approval from one of the various dermatology or skin cancer organizations, doesn’t that vouch for their safety. Again, there is an issue with money. Most of these seals cost in the $5000-$10,000 range for licensing fees and the criteria are otherwise relatively lax. When it comes to specific review of UV filters, most concerns deal with whether something is an allergen. While oxybenzone and avobenzone are both considered allergens, they occur infrequently enough that it’s not considered to be a real concern. The idea of endocrine disruption isn’t taken seriously yet by these medical communities. I’ve heard word though that another, potentially quite explosive piece of research about some of these filters is set to be published in a very credible medical journal. We’ll see what it ends up saying and how it’s received in the next couple of months… Yes, that’s what passes for gossip around our offices- we’re the Gossip Girl of sunscreens. Really and truly though, I think it will shake things up so prepare for another bout of panic and confusion.
Thanks as always for staying tuned with us. Will keep you posted.