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Introduction

How does sunscreen work and why is it important? The science is fairly simple:

Sunscreen works by blocking and absorbing UV rays through a combination of physical and chemical particles. Physical particles, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are used to reflect UV radiation from the skin. At the same time, complex chemical ingredients in sunscreen react with radiation before it penetrates the skin, absorbing the rays and releasing the energy as heat.

In that sunlight is composed of packets of energy called photons, it’s particularly the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light photons that can cause skin damage. As Kerry Hanson, a research chemist at the University of California summarizes:

UVA light penetrates deeper into the skin than UVB, destroying a structural protein called collagen. As collagen degrades, our skin loses its elasticity and smoothness, leading to wrinkles. UVA is responsible for many of the visible signs of aging, while UVB light is considered the primary source of sunburn. Think “A” for aging and “B” for burning.

DNA itself can absorb both UVA and UVB rays, causing mutations which, if unrepaired, can lead to non-melanoma (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma) or melanoma skin cancers. Other skin molecules pass absorbed UV energy on to those highly reactive ROS and free radicals. The resulting oxidative stress can overload the skin’s built-in antioxidant network and cause cellular damage. ROS can react with DNA, forming mutations, and with collagen, leading to wrinkles. They can also interrupt cell signaling pathways and gene expression.

The end result of all of these photoreactions is photodamage that accumulates over the course of a lifetime from repeated exposure.

It is estimated that there are over 100,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year in the UK alone, even though most people are now aware of the necessity of using sun lotion. With a wide range of brands available, experts continue to remind us that the most expensive and well-known products are not necessarily any better than the smaller names, and that there is no reason not to consider some of the lesser known and more ethical companies when protecting your skin. At the same time, it is important to also remember that sunscreen  should not been taken to offer a “false sense of security” insofar that once you apply it, this does not mean that you can then stay in the sun for hours and be protected. Applying and re-applying the right amounts of sunscreen is absolutely vital.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.

Screens and blocks

The Melanoma Research Foundation reports that regular sunscreen use reduces the incidence of melanoma by 50-73%. “When used as directed with other sun protection measures, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher helps prevent sunburn and reduces the risk of early skin aging and skin cancer (melanoma and squamous cell carcinomas) associated with UV radiation”. Additionally, they write, “several scientific research studies disprove claims that sunscreen use increases melanoma risk. These comprehensive assessments of thousands of people found that sunscreen use does not, in fact, increase one’s risk of developing melanoma”.

However, experts regularly warn that the main danger of sunscreen is that people increase their risk of skin cancer by increasing the length of time they spend in the sun. They warn against the use of expensive and very high sun protection factor (SPF) lotions as ‘the benefits are minimal’. Recently, consumer studies have found that cheap sunscreens can provide as much sun protection as those at the more pricey end of the market.

Sunscreen only works when it’s slapped on thick at least half an hour before going outside, as it doesn’t start working immediately. The Department of Health recommends using a sunscreen with a minimum rating of SPF 15. Unfortunately, many alternative cosmetics companies only produce low factor sunscreens. For example, Weleda uses a filter based on the vegetable extract camphor to produce SPF 8 in its highest-rated product. Green People, a brand approved by The Good Shopping Guide, has products with SPF 15-25.

Studies suggest that sunscreens with SPF 15 to 20 are generally acceptable, but that some of those above this level increase their ratings by increasing concentrations of key chemical components, which can cause irritation. Meanwhile, the EU is abolishing the term ‘sunblock’ because it is potentially misleading to customers.

Concern about chemicals?

Sunscreens may contain one or more of a number of different active compounds to block out the sun’s rays, such as OMC (octyl methoxycinnamate), benzophenone, benzophenone 3 (oxybenzone), titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and talc, all of which should be listed on the packaging. Some chemicals commonly used in sunscreens have been flagged as potential risks (studies carried out on mice have raised concerns about the safety of OMC, for example). But two points should also be noted:

1) it isn’t possible to find a sunscreen with a high SPF that doesn’t use at least one of the chemicals above.

2) While new research is being published all the time, currently the science is unclear about definite hazards or risks.

Oxybenzone is a good example as it has been a particular focus of scientists in recent years, as has Retinal palmitate. Of the two, Oxybenzone seems to have received the most attention as panic stirred about its possible detrimental effects. Concerns include how it possibly interacts with the hormones of the body in sufficiently high doses, as suggested in a 2001 study on rats. But in 2011 further research concluded:

Initial concerns arose when a report demonstrated systemic absorption of oxybenzone in humans at a rate of 1% to 2% after topical application.4 Similar or higher rates of cutaneous absorption in human subjects have been observed.5- 9 The potential for biological effects, however, were first published in a study by Schlumpf et al10 demonstrating uterotropic effects in immature rats after oral administration of oxybenzone; it should be noted that the estrogenic effect detected was less than 1 million-fold of estradiol, the positive control used. Nonetheless, this study has served as the basis for considerable concern among the public.[…] Our results indicate that both the application regimens and time periods required to obtain systemic levels of oxybenzone equivalent per unit of body mass are essentially unattainable.

In other words, the scientists calculated that one would need to apply excess amounts of oxybenzone constantly for 36 years for their to be the same level of risk found in the rats. Though there are still question marks, such as in the findings of a 2004 study that suggested traces of oxybenzone may be found in urine the day after application, the implication of what this means and the need for further research remains open.

The lesson, in any case, is that it is always best to research and review the body of scientific evidence before reacting to claims about chemicals and their potential effects. One should also remain weary about the promotion of “chemical-free” products, of which there is no such thing, as well as other claims toward “anti-aging” and so on. This is something one will find throughout the whole of the Health and Beauty sectors.

Animal testing and environmental concern

Since 2013, personal care products tested on animals can no longer be sold in Europe – even if the testing was done outside Europe. However, that doesn’t mean that companies selling their products in Europe do not continue to test products (or ingredients) on animals outside Europe and continue to sell them in other markets. This means that companies can still profit from cruelty to animals, just not in Europe.

Vegetarians and vegans will be pleased to know that sunscreens by Honesty contain no animal derived ingredients, but they will have to watch out for beeswax, chitin, collagen, elastin, lanolin and stearin, which may be found in other companies’ products. Green People, who have gained Ethical Accreditation also sell organic, ethical sun protection creams.

In addition to concerns around animal testing, oxybenzone, the same chemical discussed above, has been linked with the exacerbation of coral bleaching. This has resulted in places like Hawaii proposing a ban on the sale of lotions containing such UV-filters as oxybenzone. But at the time of writing these links and the effects of certain UV blockers are being debated. It is a debate that we’ll keep a close eye on as more research becomes available.

Packaging

The majority of sun lotions come in plastic bottles (usually polyethylene, PE, or high-density polyethylene, HDPE) and can only be recycled where such facilities exist. However, Weleda’s sun cream is packaged in an aluminium tube to enable it to be easily recycled.

Ethical Comparison – Sun Protection Rankings Detailed Table


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Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Green People, Oy!, Neal’s Yard Remedies, Honesty, incognito, Lavera, Hawaiian Tropic, Jason, Riemann P20, Ultrasun, Soltan, Clarins, Estee Lauder, Nivea Sun, Malibu, Delph, Calypso, Banana Boat, The Body Shop, Ambre Solaire, Piz Buin, Coppertone, Eucerin.

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LAST UPDATED: 2017