What Is Sunscreen Doping?

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What Is Sunscreen Doping? featured image
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There’s never a dull moment in the word of sun care. From benzene recalls to counterfeit formulas and everything in between, sunscreen is top of our editors’ minds year-round. Currently on our radar is a new buzzword called “sunscreen doping,” which sheds light on a “dangerous loophole” in sunscreen manufacturing. It also presents the argument that many mineral sunscreens are actually moonlighting as hybrid sunscreens (a mix of chemical and physical UV filters). Here, experts reveal all there is to know about what sunscreen doping means and how it may impact your favorite SPF (and potentially, your skin).

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What Does “Sunscreen Doping” Mean?

Sophie Bai, founder and CEO of B.A.I.Biosciences and Pavise, came up with the term “sunscreen doping” to describe the manufacturing practice that adds unapproved chemical UV filters to sunscreens, including mineral formulas. “For mineral sunscreens, this is a practice to increase the SPF value without having a high percentage of zinc or titanium dioxide. This creates a fairly transparent formula and decreases the white cast,” Bai explains. “For chemical sunscreens, this is a practice to increase the SPF value. These doping ingredients are structurally similar to their chemical UV filter counterparts—we call them chemical analogs. They behave exactly the same as chemical UV filters. Existing chemical UV filters that are approved by the FDA have gone through more stringent testing, whereas those doping ingredients have not.”

Bai wrote an article on the topic of sunscreen doping that was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. She also presented her findings at the American Academy of Dermatology meeting. “Sophie Bai is a brilliant founder that came up with the term,” adds Palermino. “So many things can boost a sunscreen, meaning things can increase its sun protection factor, or UVA protection. But, what makes certain ‘boosters,’ or doping ingredients, different is that they absorb UV radiation. That is what a sunscreen active does.” Commonly used actives that absorb UV radiation are avobenzone, octisalate, octicrylene and homosalate.

How to Determine If Your Sunscreen Is “Doped”

Palermino says the FDA has made it clear that any ingredient that absorbs UV radiation must be listed as an active ingredient on a sunscreen. But, these doping ingredients, or boosters, are listed in the “inactive ingredient” section on the bottle. Take a look at the label on your favorite sunscreen. According to Palermino, the most common booster in mineral sunscreens is an ingredient called butyloctyl salicylate. Others include tridecyl salicylate and ethyl ferulate. “Butyloctyl salicylate is an analog of octisalate, which is a chemical sunscreen filter that absorbs UV light,” she says. “It acts exactly like octisalate, but looks a little different. Think of it like iPhone 14 versus iPhone 15.” I also spoke to Dr. Julian Sass, a cosmetic formulator and product developer who has tested more than 400 sunscreens. “None of these ‘doping’ ingredients are approved sunscreen filters in any market around the world,” he says.

“Because the FDA does not recognize these boosters, it is a loophole,” Palermino explains. “I would say it is a dangerous loophole because people may have allergies, and we don’t know the percentage they are using.” Bai agrees. “Some consumers get irritations from chemical sunscreens, and therefore prefer 100-percent mineral sunscreens,” she says. “But, these people should look at the inactive ingredient list to find if doping ingredients are present. This could help them avoid potentially irritations or contact dermatitis that those ingredients can cause.”

What This Means for Sunscreen Brands

Bai says that any sunscreen containing these booster ingredients and claiming to be “100-percent mineral” is “not truthful and essentially a hybrid sunscreen. Bashing on chemical sunscreens while promoting doped mineral sunscreens is hypocritical and self-conflicting.” Additionally, Dr. Sass says that SPF is not solely the result of UV filters. “There are plenty of cosmetic ingredients that absorb UV to some degree and are added to sunscreens to increase their SPF,” he explains. “As the demand for mineral sunscreens increases because of the demonization of chemical sunscreens, people who formulate these products are well aware of other ingredients that improve SPF without adding more UV filters. These include antioxidants, emollients, polymers, and even some preservatives.”

“It’s murky, but I understand why brands do it,” says Palermino. “They are in an impossible position trying to make a wearable sunscreen that can compete with brands internationally.”

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