Of all the products to grace your bathroom shelf, sunscreen remains one of the most hotly contested topics in the realm of skincare.
This year-round essential is the most efficacious way to shield skin from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays, as well as combat the visible signs of premature ageing including fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone.
While many of us understand the importance of this vital skincare step, selecting the right broad-spectrum formulation to suit your specific skin type and needs can be overwhelming.
As the descriptors listed on each bottle continue to multiply – chemical, physical, reef-friendly – there are far more decisions to make.
Back-of-bottle ingredients continue to baffle the uninitiated, with ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide (or a combination of the two) mystifying shoppers just as much as the varying sun protection factor (SPF) levels do.
Active ingredients contained within sunscreens harness either physical (also known as mineral) or chemical UV filters that protect the skin from UV rays. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin in sunlight – physical filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide reflect and scatter UV radiation, while chemical filters work by safely absorbing UV radiation.
Earlier this year, the FDA published a study* that showed how commonly used chemical filters including oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone are systematically absorbed into the body after just one use. The study also found that these sunscreen ingredients remained on the skin and in the bloodstream in the weeks following application.
A scary thought yes, but while findings show that sunscreen chemicals are circulating in the bloodstream, the FDA maintains it does not have enough information to determine whether these chemicals are harmful. For now, the aforementioned ingredients are deemed as GRASE (generally recognised as safe and effective) by the FDA.
Then there’s the issue of trusting claims made by manufacturers. Every year, watchdog organisation Consumer calls into question the declared SPF levels of a cross-section of local and imported brands.
Its most recent report (published on December 7) found that five sunscreens failed to meet the SPF claims on the bottle, two of which also did not provide broad-spectrum protection despite stating otherwise.
The news was supported by an announcement that the Ministry of Health has confirmed an upcoming law change will see sunscreens regulated in New Zealand.
It's been a long time coming, with both Consumer and the Cancer Society having pushed for sunscreen regulation for years. But on December 9 a Ministry of Health spokesperson confirmed this change will come as part of the New Zealand Cancer Action Plan 2019-2029.
The Therapeutic Products Bill will replace the Medicines Act 1981, which will see sunscreens regulated as medicines instead of cosmetics, holding them to a higher standard to ensure their safety, efficacy and quality. The bill remains in its draft phase due to delays caused by Covid-19.
Selecting the right sunscreen that won’t irritate skin, harm the environment, or won’t budge when you sweat may seem an impossible task, but according to Dr Fernandes, a sunscreen that combines the benefits of a physical and chemical sunscreen is your best bet.
“I believe the combination of physical and chemical sunscreens can potentially give us the safest and most effective sunscreens, especially as a single product. One would depend on having a strong (but not visible) physical ingredient concentration, with a weaker chemical sunscreen,” he says.
Despite popular opinion, Environ founder and scientific director Dr Fernandes says that a combination of the two in sunscreens that range from SPF 15 to 25 are his pick. “One could also use a low dose SPF10 chemical sunscreen with a SPF 15-20 physical sunscreen,” he says, adding that regular application is key to staying protected.
Applying sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure and reapplying every two hours is your best line of defence. Maximise protection by being sun smart – ensure a hat and sunglasses remain stashed in your beach bag, and avoid sun exposure during high sun hours.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how much sunscreen to apply, but your aim should be to ensure every part of uncovered skin is protected, including your hairline, ears, neck and chest says Gina Russell, education manager for Heliocare New Zealand.
“It doesn’t make sense to tell people that they have to use a prescribed amount because people don’t go with measuring spoons to the beach,” Dr Fernandes adds. “Be liberal in application and rub it well all over the skin. It’s always more needed than people think and if in doubt, reapply after 30 minutes.”
Local organisation Sun Smart offers a useful tool to help beachgoers determine when extra protection is needed with its Sun Protection Alert. See Sunsmart.org.nz for more information.
New from renowned dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross is the All Physical Daily Defense UV Shield SPF50, $85, which recruits physical UV filters like zinc oxide to provide broad-spectrum UV protection, while antioxidant-rich vitamin E targets wrinkles and dark spots.
Dermalogica Invisible Physical Defense SPF30, $103, is a lightweight, physical sunscreen that absorbs into skin quickly, minus the icky white residue that often comes with sunscreen use. This new-to-market offering contains ultra-sheer zinc oxide to defend against UVA and UVB rays while protecting against blue light pollution.
Heliocare 360° Mineral Tolerance Fluid SPF50, $66, is a reef-friendly option which looks to 100 per cent mineral filters to provide broad-spectrum protection and keep free radicals at bay. It also harnesses fern-derived antioxidants to tackle stubborn pigmentation.
Environ Rad Shield Mineral Sunscreen SPF15, $93, forms a protective barrier on skin using a combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which creates a physical block against UVA and UVB rays.
MeToday Sun Care Natural SPF30, $40, offers broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and rich hydration for both face and body, thanks to its blend of botanicals, antioxidants and vitamins, alongside nano zinc oxide.
STOCKISTS: Dermalogica from Dermalogica skin centres, selected department stores and pharmacies, or see Dermalogica.co.nz; Dr Dennis Gross from Mecca and Meccabeauty.co.nz; Environ from selected skincare clinics and Psb.net.nz; Heliocare.nz; Metoday.com.
*Source: Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)