These 3 Things Should Never Be in Your Sunscreen.
If you’ve followed our blog or our company for a while, you’ve probably sensed our discomfort with the ingredient Oxybenzone. We think it should be banned from our bodies. If you have not read our many reasons why it’s an ingredient worth avoiding- click here to read why you could consider it one of the most dangerous chemicals in your house.
If you’re all caught up on that, we thought we’d share this month some lesser known no-no’s in sunscreen formulations. I’ll admit when I scan labels these are the red-flags that jump out at me and make me wonder whether the formulator simply did not know any better or chose to ignore the most relevant science in our field.
In short, here is a list of little known things that should not be in your sunscreen
1. The Combination of Octinoxate and Avobenzone
This one is a doozy but fortunately relatively rare. If you see it, put down the bottle and walk away. For me, there is really no excuse to have these two ingredients combined. We know better and should do better.
These two ingredients on their own are not great in their most current, prevalent form. To my knowledge, most forms of these ingredients come in their commodity form as being small-particle sized. They are potential photo-allergens. They also have their own stability issues. We use an encapsulated form of octinoxate in our Every Morning Sun Whip SPF 25. This dopes the octinoxate molecule into a silica bead and makes a small particle (that normally would get absorbed into the body) huge. It makes it roughly 6-7 microns large so that it sits on the surface of the skin and actually does not come into contact, reducing any chance for allergy.
What you may not know though, is these two ingredients are like each others Kryptonite. Avobenzone breaks down in sunlight, which is an unfortunate characteristic for a sunscreen filter. It requires stabilization from ingredients like octocrylene or Mexoryl SX and Xl. However, when combined with Octinoxate, they each precipitate the breakdown of each other. This breakdown is so precipitous that not only do both your UVB and UVA protection of the sunscreen breakdown, free radicals are also generated.
Octocrylene as mentioned does abate the photodegredation of this combination somewhat but not sufficiently to make it a viable solution. In theory, you could encapsulate both ingredients to keep them from coming into contact with each other. However, this technology is not widely available and remains expensive and hard to work with. The better solution would be to simply avoid this combination- if your product includes it, it’s worth questioning whether the manufacturer really understands sunscreen formulations.
2. Essential Oils especially citrus based ones
I’m not altogether against essential oils. I see them as powerful and complex compounds. The chemistry within a single drop is astonishing. A knowledgable practitioner can use them to great effect- if used judiciously and strategically. What I’m not comfortable with, is the increasing trend in skincare to use a dash-of-this-dash-of-that style of formulating with them. You are starting to see a lot of craft style brands essentially sell mixes of essential oils where some times 10+ essential oils are mixed together.
I do not think they should be used in sunscreens. When you take the complex chemistry of the skin, the sun and essential oils- I think you are mixing up host of potential reactions that are hard to predict. One thing is clear though, you should never, ever use a product that contains lime or any citrus based essential oil during the day on sun exposed skin. Dermatologist frequently see what is called photodermatitis- the sudden appearance of brown streaks or spots when lime juice or extract on the skin is exposed to sun light. This pigmentation can take a long time to fade, however more severe reactions can occur with blistering or redness occurring as well. As one Facebook user can attest, essential oils can cause really severe
blistering as you can tell by her alarming pictures.
This is another mistake in formulating a sunscreen that shows a lack of understanding about photobiology and dermatology. I wish I could say it was a ‘rookie’ mistake but you see it in brands all of the time.
3. Anti-Inflammatories and Anti-Oxidants (if replacing concentrations of filters)
On their own, there is nothing wrong with anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants. Plant derived anti-inflammatories include chamomile and Vitamin E. We are a huge advocate for stable anti-oxidants like turmeric, resveratrol etc. However, our issue with these two types of ingredients is when they are used to replace sunscreen filters as protection against the sun. These ingredients can be used to increase the SPF of a sunscreen by gaming the current SPF test.
The FDA mandates that the in-vivo test for SPF is used, meaning it’s tested on humans as opposed to being tested in-vitro, which literally means tested on glass. SPF is calculated by looking at the level of redness produced by directing a photo lamp at test subjects. We are starting to learn that the photo lamp itself is problematic and not equivalent to natural sun light. Another great limitation of the test is that it uses redness as the equivalent of sun protection. Therefore a sunscreen formulation can focus on taking away redness in the skin by including anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants, and this will provide a higher SPF while not necessarily providing better protection.
I’m going to share the best metaphor I’ve ever read about these ingredients and sunscreen. For the life of me, I can’t remember where I’ve read it so pardon my lack of an appropriate citation. Consider UV light like a gun. Sunscreen filters are like a bullet-proof vest in that they shield you to varying degrees from getting shot. They’re not perfect and some are better than others in making sure you do not get injured. Anti-oxidants do not prevent you from getting shot but they are equivalent to having a doctor on hand to help stitch you up after wards. In other words, they do not prevent harm but they help heal it afterwards. Anti-inflammatories within the context of sunscreens do not prevent you from getting shot nor do they help you heal afterwards. They put a gag in your mouth so you can’t yell from the pain. For the SPF test, they stop redness from emerging which is your body’s way of expressing sun damage. You have to be very wary of formulas that prevent the expression of damage but not the damage itself!
How do you know if your sunscreen is relying on anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants to elevate their SPF? Look at the medicinal ingredients. I’ve included a handy little SPF calculator in this post here. In short, if your sunscreen has something like 3% Titanium Dioxide and 2% Zinc Oxide, then it can have a max SPF of 11. If it has an SPF 30 or more but has a long list of botanical extracts, then something is off. In the coming days, we’ll discuss some new proprietary ways of increasing the SPF with non-medicinals that actually improve protection and do not game the SPF test. In the interim, if the math does not add up, it’s worth being suspicious.
That’s it for now! Share your comments and questions below!