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A Look at the New Suncreen Database from the Environmental Working Group and Thoughts About the Cosmetic Implications

An impressive study report and database released yesterday, and one that is well worth the time to explore is the Sunscreen Database from Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database by Environmental Working Group (EWG) (note, the EWG is a non-profit organization and conducts research independently of the companies that manufacture the products). The database is the result of an analysis of the safety and effectiveness of over 700 sunscreen products and provides ratings based on both of those values. It also provides information about the individual ingredients in each product.

Observing that the FDA has failed to conduct similar research, the Environmental Working Group chose to conduct its own. Its findings are rather disconcerting, with a determination that 84% of the products analyzed with an SPF rating of 15 or higher offer inadequate protection, especially when looking across the UVA and UVB spectrum. It also observes that a number of sunscreen agents break down when exposed to sunlight, thus weakening their effectiveness. Some agents penetrate the skin, raising safety concerns. As a result, the organization urges FDA implementation of safety and effectiveness standards and FDA approval of new sunscreens that are safe and effective.

I spent a good deal of time yesterday playing with the information available in the database. Although there is some less than reassuring information there, it is information that one should not ignore, and by exploring it, the wealth of information provided can greatly assist the formation of informed consumer choices. Most certainly, the concerns expressed should not deter a person from using sunscreen. Instead it should be used to make better purchases.

Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at EWG notes that a person should always use sunscreen. But, she explains: “not all sunscreens are created equal. Our research shows that some products are far more effective than others, while presenting fewer safety concerns.” (quote and background information are from from the EWG Press Release).

I wanted to read how great my favorite sunscreens were, but I went away disappointed in their middling to lower rankings and decided to make some new choices. Overall the database and rankings are quite useful for information about the products. Full information explaining the ranking for each is provided. There is also a good amount of information about agents that have not been FDA approved. A consumer can search for a particular brand, ingredient, or can choose to view the best and worst of the products.

I next started pondering the implications from a beauty perspective instead of the health/science perspective of the EWG research, which understandably and for obvious reasons, was not testing the cosmetic or “pretty” factors of the sunscreens . The first implication is that while most chemical agents degrade in sunlight, those are often preferable to women because they do not change the tone of the skin or get pasty when wearing them. The study noted that the physical blockers, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were the exceptions with degradation from sunlight and not surprisingly, the top products tended to be high in physical blockers. But these were not necessarily formulated for the face and the problem cosmetically is the whitish tone they can cast. Some also contain nano particles, that the EWG expressed safety concerns about.

So what is a woman to do? Well, first off, a number of products with physical blockers also contain chemical blockers and the combination lessens any whiteness. Tinted products can also fix the issue. Further, a combination of physical and chemical blockers might provide more blocking of rays across the spectrum. I noted that a version of one of my favorite sunscreens that meets this description is fairly high in the database: Total Block . Total Block is also available with tint packages to make a heavy coverage high SPF makeup.  But I have read about Fallene causing issues with acne for some people and it can look bit pasty at times in the untinted version. Not to mention that the tinted version provides more coverage than some, or even many, women want. So unfortunately, what might be most effective may or may not be ideal for other beauty concerns.

Another implication of the research is that it reinforces something that is often preached. Reapply, reapply, reapply. If a chosen sunscreen contains agents that break down in sunlight, and it probably does, then obviously it must be reapplied when the effectiveness begins to degrade. Use the research to make a wise choice, and perhaps the need for reapplication will lessen, but none of these products are a wonder ray blocker that will provide protection all day. From a cosmetic perspective, I tend to reapply a mineral powder foundation at times, simply to avoid messing with my makeup. The study does not specifically address mineral makeup that has an SPF factor, although I note that those are generally going to contain physical blockers and may or may not have safety or allergy concerns if they contain fillers such as bismuth.

To the extent products have safety concerns, I recommend that consumers read the information about the ingredients in the individual product. The EWG study show the concerns by type of ingredient. I found that in some cases, the concern was about something that I was not personally worried about, such as a fragrance that has allergy implications, or that the effectiveness would outweigh things simply because I have melasma and require a highly effective product. Or, there might be a low safety rating because of a specific ingredient that I might actually desire to have. For example, alpha hydroxy acids rate in the middle for safety in the database. But obviously, the personal concerns on these things will vary, and I think the safety information is particularly of use to those who have sensitive skin or have various allergic reactions. This is especially true with sensitivity to fragrance because the database generally gives fragrances a poor safety rating. Also, for anyone trying to decide between products of a similar rank, looking at the detailed ingredient information may help make the choice.

Finally, I was curious when I could not find La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios, containing Mexoryl on the list. Mexoryl is the first new suncreen approved by the FDA in over a decade, and Anthelios is an often recommended, but relatively expensive product suitable for the face. I had been considering purchasing it for review. I inquired about the matter and I have to give a big thanks to Amanda from the EWG’s blog, enviroblog.org, for helping me acquire additional information. It turns out that Mexoryl was approved by the FDA after the EWG research started. Regardless, some information is available, which Amanda pointed me to. On the middling side, the EWG found that Mexoryl degrades up to 40% after 2 hours. It also rated in the middle in terms of safety. On the good side, and the reason it is often recommended, is that if offers very wide UVA protection. Anthelios also contains avobenzone and octocrylene. The three ingredients stabilize each other and together provide full spectrum protection. A similar sunscreen in the report, containing the same ingredients, but adding titanium dioxide is Lancome Soleil High Protection. That product rated high for effectiveness and stability. But it also rated poorly for safety, although much of that rating came from fragrance. Because the safety notes on that one are not personally items of high concern for me, I think the Lancome Soleil may be a good product for me to try.

In the end, this interesting study report and research database is well worth a look. While there, take the time to browse around other ares of the site as well. The EWG has done quite a bit of work exploring and rating the safety of a wide range of cosmetics and other beauty products. It can be quite enlightening.

With that said, I will start looking into some of the top rated sunscreens to try, and will likely try the Lancome sunscreen over LaRoche-Posay Anthelios. My hope is that some of these will be suitable for the face without causing breakouts, an oil slick, pasty look, or a whitish tint etc. I will report what I find and I urge others who have tried any of the best rated products to share their impressions from a cosmetic/beauty standpoint.

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