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The Ugly Truth About Sunscreen Ingredients


There is enough evidence to show a potential link between excessive sun exposure and skin cancers, and the ultimate role of sunscreen is to reduce exposure. But what ingredients are in these sunscreens we trust to protect -and not further damage- our skin?


There are two types of FDA-approved sunscreens: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens, such as those containing oxybenzone and Parsol 1789, absorb ultraviolet rays. Mineral sunscreens, containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, reflect, absorb, and scatter ultraviolet rays.


There are currently 15 FDA-approved chemical sunscreen ingredients and two mineral. In Europe and other parts of the world, there are other ingredients, and some of the United States-approved ingredients are banned in Europe. The Sunscreen Innovation Act was introduced in 2014 and aims to speed up FDA approval of new sunscreen ingredients and was heavily lobbied for by companies such as L’oreal and Coppertone.


The actual talk of sunscreen is a very, very tricky one. There are sides of the conversation that link certain sunscreen ingredients to health issues. Oxybenzone and octinoxate have been linked to multiple hormone disruptive issues and high incidences of skin allergies. Octisalate and octocrylene have also been linked to photosensitivity concerns and skin allergies. Of the current FDA-approved ingredients, zinc, titanium, and avobenzone are considered the safest broad-spectrum sunscreens, although avobenzone is still linked to skin allergies. We are just learning how other ingredients in a formulation react to sunlight.


Photosensitizers and Phototoxicity

These active ingredients make up between two to 20 percent of a formula. Sunscreens also contain ingredients to stabilize, preserve, moisturize, and ultimately provide a pleasant experience. Antioxidants and fragrances are added to enhance appeal and fillers are added to reduce manufacturing cost.

Phototoxicity is an immediate or delayed inflammatory reaction caused by a combination of topical and oral ingredients followed by sun exposure. Many common ingredients in skin care are known as phototoxic and/or photosensitizers. These ingredients can be found in formulation or taken internally. For example, taking ibuprofen before sun exposure can cause a higher sensitivity to sunburn.


Topically, common photosensitizing ingredients found in skin care are retinyl palmitate, retinol, salicylic and glycolic acids, hydroquinone and citrus essential oils.


Is Retinol Causing More Damage to Your Skin?


According to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 20 percent of current sunscreen formulations contain retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A derivative. Vitamin A is a major ally in promoting cell turnover, anti-aging, and giving clients the glow they expect from the spa. Retinyl palmitate is a low-cost way to add vitamin A to products but has been shown to wreak havoc on skin when exposed to sun. Vitamin A increases cell turnover, exposing new skin cells to sun. When you do a peel or exfoliation, it's generally recommended to avoid the sun for three to seven days after to prevent hyperpigmentation and sensitivity. Yet, there are daily use products that contain vitamin A. Although the strength of exfoliation is significantly lower than a professional peel, there is still cell turnover happening while skin is exposed to the sun. Can you see how this goes against a skin care professional’s directions?


A study by the U.S. government suggests retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. This study was not conclusive, and left many questions, but retinyl palmitate still remains in products.


Citrus Oils - Is "Natural" Always a Good Thing?

Citrus oils are the other rampant trouble makers. Most citrus oils contain furocoumarins, which are photosensitizing. In 1990, the European Scientific Committee on Cosmetology created very strict rules for furocoumarin containing ingredients in beauty products, with particular attention to sunscreens.


In the United States, we are way behind. Most of us adore the scent of a lemony body butter and because it is natural, it is often given a green light. Consumers believe natural products are safe, but this is not always true. In skin care products, manufacturers will often claim to use such a small amount that it does not matter. We know that even at one percent, many ingredients are active on the skin, and this holds true for citrus.


Professional aromatherapists are trained to avoid citrus oils on skin, and will caution clients to avoid sun for as long as 48 hours after exposure. Yet, in the products industry, we often keep the citrus conversation under wraps because citrus sells, and, when not exposed to sunlight, citrus can actually help lighten sun spots.


Hydroquinone Hydroquinone has also been linked to photosensitivity. It has been reported that after four to five months of regular use, many clients begin to see a blueish-color stain in the areas where hydroquinone was used. Leading experts in hydroquinone have proposed that clients use it for no more than five months at a time. The skin must be given a break to allow it to stabilize.


All this information is enough to make us want to stay indoors, in a bubble of safety, and wrapped in a sun-shielding blanket. Then we would be unhappy and vitamin D deficient!


So what can you do to protect your skin ?


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