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Choosing sunscreen

With so much talk of the harmful ingredients in sunscreen, what should we use to protect our skin this summer?
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
How to choose a sunscreen this summer

Unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB causes sunburn and could lead to serious health problems, such as skin cancer. In addition, as UVA can contribute to accelerated or premature skin ageing (photoageing), sun protection is vital for the health of our body.

During the summer months the sun is higher in the sky, increasing our skin’s daily dose of harmful UV light. Sun protection is particularly important for children as they are more sensitive to sun damage than adults.

Hana Musinovic, regulatory & scientific officer at NATRUE (the international Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association and certification body), has put together this advice to help you find the right sunscreen, wherever you plan to travel this summer.

Which sunscreens are best?

To protect us, sunscreens include UV-filters. These work either by absorbing and changing the UV light, which is the case for artificial sunscreens, or by reflecting and scattering the UV light, which is how mineral sunscreens work.

Two mineral sunscreens are permitted by the NATRUE criteria as these substances occur in nature. The two permitted UV filters are zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are classified as nature-identical substances. NATRUE allows for nature-identical ingredients to be used in cosmetic formulations when the natural raw material is problematic and the nature-identical material can be made without harm to us or to the planet.

Although they do exist in nature, sourcing minerals from the earth and rock is often fraught with difficulty. Quality is an issue, as there may be contaminates and impurities in the ground. This is a particular concern if the minerals are contaminated with unacceptable levels of heavy metals.

Safety is also often an issue for the miners. Protecting the landscape from the devastating impact of mining on the landscape is also another reason. Therefore NATRUE allows nature-identical copies of mineral ingredients, because this guarantees greater purity and safety for the consumer. These pigments can be found in nature but are reproduced under strict laboratory conditions to ensure quality standards for the finished product.

Mineral sunscreens with nano particles

Nano particles do exist in nature. They are just very tiny particles of substances. You’ll find nano particles of silica in sand on the beach, for example. For this reason the NATRUE standard permits nano forms of zinc oxide and titanium oxide.

Both nano and non-nano forms of zinc oxide and titanium oxide are approved by law in accordance with certain restrictions, for instance their purity and maximum concentration in finished products. Both zinc oxide and titanium oxide in nano and non-nano forms have received positive review from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) as part of their independent safety assessment.

In the EU, claims on cosmetic products have to meet six common criteria. The claim ‘nano free’ or ‘free from nano’ would have to be evidentially supported in order to not be misleading to consumers (that is, to substantiate that no nanomaterials whatsoever were in the formulation).

Even if the majority of the intentionally manufactured UV-filters were in non-nano form, there could be some particles, even if unintentionally present, that would be considered nano in size.

Consumers are notably cautious about nanomaterials, and to this end for consumer notification it remains the law for all manufacturers of finished products when intentionally using nanoscale ingredients that these must be labelled using their INCI name followed by ‘nano’ in brackets.

Sunscreens to avoid

Some Caribbean islands and other mainland holiday destinations in the Pacific ocean have taken precautionary measures to ban some synthetic sunscreens over concerns for their potential risk to marine life. For instance from 01 January 2021, the state of Hawaii will ban the sale or distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate on its beaches, while the state of Palau will ban from 01 January 2020 the sale and use of sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone, ethyl paraben, octinoxate, butyl paraben, octocrylene, 4-methylbenzlidene camphor, benzyl paraben, tricolosan, methyl paraben or phenoxyethanol.

Other regions that are introducing similar measures include Bonaire, Miami and Key West Florida, plus several Mexican resorts.

Natrue-certified Weleda Sun Crae range

Natural vs chemical sunscreens

Substances such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrlene and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor are Sun Protection Factor (SPF) chemicals that are used in sunscreen products. These artificial sunscreens absorb the ultraviolet light from the sun and later neutralise it, whereas natural sunscreens directly reflect and scatter UV rays.

Natural sunscreens also offer a more immediate and long-lasting protection as they create a protection layer on the skin that doesn’t require several minutes of absorption, unlike conventional artificial sunscreens which need some time to be fully absorbed in the skin.

NATRUE’s standard only allows zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (which are mineral sunscreens) in the formulation of NATRUE-certified natural and organic sunscreens. Over 40 NATRUE-certified sunscreen skincare products (creams, lip balms, after-sun creams and tanning products) are available.

NATRUE-certified sunscreens offer an alternative to consumers who want to enjoy the sun while protecting their skin with natural and organic products.

When sunscreen gets into our water

Aside from the regulations protecting consumer safety for all cosmetic products, all EU law is embedded by the precautionary principle and all substances permitted on the European market are regulated through the REACH (chemicals) legislation. The environmental concerns that substances used in cosmetic products may raise are considered through the application of REACH, which enables the assessment of environmental safety in a cross-sectoral manner.

While we have seen recent movements to ban the use of artificial UV filters in Hawaii and other territories, these bans have not extended to mineral UV filters – either in nano or non-nano forms. Currently, there is no definitive scientific conclusion, one way or the other, to indicate with absolute certainty the post-use impact of washed-off mineral UV filters in cosmetics on the marine environment.

The environmental impact of products is important for NATRUE, and as for any emerging or evolving criteria for the NATRUE Label we continue to actively monitor the developing scientific evidence in order to establish any future requirements necessary. We also monitor developments at EU and international level for their impact upon the natural and organic cosmetic sector, including where we can influence or contribute to any proposed legislation.

Choosing a sunscreen

There is always a balance to be made between human health, safety in the sun and the environmental impact of these substances in the post-use phase.

When looking for a truly natural cosmetic sunscreen, keep an eye out for those carrying the NATRUE seal. Natural sunscreens, like any sunscreen, must always be safe and effective in order to be on the market. The difference being, however, that all NATRUE-certified sunscreens must include only ingredients found in nature. For this reason NATRUE-certified sun creams only contain mineral filters.

Brands that produce sun care products include Weleda, Lavera and Alverde Naturkosmetik.

Click here to read our article about Weleda’s solution to the packaging problem.

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