For decades, sunscreen application has been considered a chore, and as such, it’s become a neglected step in our routines, or, sadly, eliminated entirely. However, recent SPF advances are impressing even the biggest sunscreen skeptics, and hopefully putting an end to the many excuses we make not to protect our largest organ. “The message is finally getting through that sunscreen isn’t just meant for a day at the beach,” says New York dermatologist and president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD.
Physical vs. Chemical
Let’s break down the two categories: “Physical” or “mineral” sunscreens include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and work to reflect UV rays off of the skin, whereas “chemical” sunscreens—avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate,
homosalate—absorb UV and convert it into heat in the skin. Oxybenzone is also part of this group, but has recently fallen out of favor due to concerns about it entering the bloodstream and acting as “a hormone disrupter, which, although there is no conclusive evidence of it’s harm, has been quite upsetting to the public,” says New York dermatologist Michelle Henry, MD. “I’m not opposed to chemical SPF—it blends into the skin more seamlessly and is less likely to leave a white cast—but I do avoid oxybenzone.”
Although the FDA is still investigating the effects of chemical sunscreen, a 2019 study tested the absorption of all six active ingredients, and each one reached the bloodstream, even after a single use. However, while experts agree more data is needed, the general consensus and FDA’s position is that these studies do not conclude these ingredients are unsafe.
UVA vs. UVB
The two types of UV light that are proven to contribute to skin cancer are UVA and UVB, hence the “broad-spectrum” label on modern sunscreens, which means they shield against both: Think UVA—A, for aging—and UVB—B, for burning. “UVA rays have less energy and don’t burn the skin, but they can cause skin aging and contribute to the development of
melanoma,” says Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman. A common gripe with American SPFs is
that they don’t contain the same level of UVA defense as their foreign counterparts. As cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos explains, this is largely because “sunscreens sold in the United States are regulated as a drug because they are intended to help prevent sunburn and decrease risk for skin cancer; in Europe and some other countries, they’re treated as cosmetics.”
Therefore, they don’t undergo the same regulatory red-tape: “The EU allows a variety of effective UVA ingredients, but the U.S. only has one good one, avobenzone, which can be tricky to stabilize,” explains Dobos. Cosmetic formulator Stephen Alain Ko says the additional UV filters—Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL—have been under review in the U.S. for years, and despite “more than decades-long records of safety on these filters in the EU, the U.S. FDA’s efforts have stalled.”
The New Zinc
While we wait for the additional UVA actives stateside, we’ll enjoy the new crop of zinc-based blockers, which have
received a major upgrade as of late. “People often complain about the texture and opacity of mineral sunscreens—they
can appear chalky on the skin,” Dr. Henry says. As a fix, many companies are now formulating with micronized zinc oxide particles, which don’t reflect as much visible light as standard zinc particles, resulting in more of a transparent finish. “Micronized and nano-sized zinc are being used to create both clear and tinted SPF. But, while these tints might be better for several skin tones, they are often still somewhat visible on deeper skin tones. Just like foundation, we need more shades of tinted sunscreen,” says Ko. However, tints may come with an extra perk: Dr. Sarnoff says a recent study revealed that tinted, broad-spectrum sunscreens can protect against visible light—including blue light—in addition to UV light.”
La Roche-Posay just launched an SPF 100, joining Neutrogena and other brands offering the maximum protection factor.
But is more actually better? Dr. Henry says no product is 100-percent effective, but early data looks promising: “In one
split-faced study comparing SPF 50 and SPF 100, researchers found that people were about 10 times more likely to burn
on the SPF 50 side than the SPF 100 side.” For those who do correctly apply, The American Academy of Dermatology says
SPF 30 is adequate. And for those who prefer mineral formulas, Dr. Haberman says zinc oxide between 15 and 20 percent corresponds to an SPF of up to 32.
The Antioxidant Effect
One of the greatest skin threats of UV radiation is oxidative stress (free-radical damage), which leads to the breakdown of collagen and visible signs of aging. Externally, sunscreen is the first line of defense, but internally, “antioxidant-rich supplements that include polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE) and other extracts can complement topicals and provide extra support to fight free radicals,” says Franklin, TN dermatologist Jill Fichtel, MD, who recommends Heliocare Daily Use Antioxidant Formula. Derm-loved ISDIN recently launched its SUNISDIN supplements with the same inside-out protection in mind, and both products are backed by scientific research proving their efficacy.