Getting out in the sun may feel good right now, but protecting your exposed skin with sunscreen is as important as ever. Luckily, new products and formulations not only shield you from the ultraviolet (UV) radiation that leads to skin cancer, but may help your skin in other ways, too. In part 1, we learned some surprising facts about solar rays and why protecting skin from a broader part of the spectrum is a groundbreaking focus of research. In part 2, we look at how the industry is making products better for you!
By Julie Bain, with additional reporting by Julia Langer
Have you found a sunscreen you love and wear every single day? Or more than one, for different uses and parts of your body? Congratulations! The researchers in the personal care and cosmetic industry have worked hard to create innovations for better sun protection products that appeal to every need — with beauty and antiaging benefits, too. Long-beloved brands have created enhanced formulas and formats, and new brands have emerged, too, so there are choices to appeal to every age, skin type and skin tone. This has led a generation of people to embrace the benefits of protecting their skin starting at a younger age than their predecessors did. And former sun worshippers are using products that may even help undo some of the damage. New research is emerging, and exciting developments are on the horizon!
Now that you understand from part 1 the sections of the electromagnetic spectrum and the dangers they pose, here are some of the trends you’ll be seeing in sunscreen products.
Tinted Mineral-Based Formulas
Demand for mineral-based sunscreens containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide is growing. Those are the two sunscreen ingredients in the U.S. the FDA determined in 2019 are generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE). They’re also sometimes called “physical blockers,” because they stay on the surface of the skin and mostly deflect UV rays. Scientists prefer the term “inorganic UV filters.”
These ingredients used to be known for being white and pasty, hard to rub in and creating a whitish, ashy look, especially on dark skin tones. Now most formulas are “micronized” into tinier particles, so they go on more easily and smoothly, still stay safely on the surface of skin but look better on most skin colors. Adding tint to the product, usually with iron oxides, can help with the aesthetics — and maybe more.
“It’s great that so many brands are putting some tint into their products,” says New York dermatologist Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, president of The Skin Cancer Foundation. “I think that makes men and women alike embrace the products more. I’ve seen it in my own practice and in my own family. It’s not makeup. It’s sunscreen you should wear every day, and it can make you look better. For people with a ruddy or red complexion, you color-correct it with a thin amount of these products, and suddenly you’re looking better and getting compliments.”
Tinted sunscreens and cosmetics may have a bigger benefit than making you look good. Kobo Products, which specializes in inorganic filters, has experimented with different particle sizes of the active ingredients and the addition of metal oxides that tint the product and also make it more effective across a broader range of the spectrum. Yun Shao, PhD, vice president of research and development for Kobo, says, “In response to the rising need of HEV and IR protection, we studied a variety of particulate materials and developed a range of safe and effective inorganic ingredients. We have seen a high level of interest among our customers since the introduction of these novel ingredients to the marketplace.”
While more research is needed, layering tinted products over your daily broad-spectrum sunscreen couldn’t hurt. Some scientists are convinced that until we protect against more of the spectrum, skin cancer rates will continue to rise. Dennis Lott, president of Lott Research, Inc., who’s been involved in the sun-care industry for more than 45 years, says, “The sun doesn’t quit at 380 nanometers; it keeps going!” Pigmented products may help.
A New Sunscreen Ingredient?
In many other countries, where sunscreens are considered cosmetics, sunscreen manufacturers have dozens of effective ingredients from which to choose. In the U.S., where sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drugs, the industry has had its share of challenges. Certain ingredients have come under scrutiny by the FDA, as well as in public opinion, and more research is likely needed before it will all be resolved. In 2019, the FDA asked for more data on the currently approved “organic filters” (sometimes called “chemical sunscreens,” although chemists don’t like that term) before the FDA would determine if they were GRASE. Now that the Over-the-Counter Monograph Safety, Innovation and Reform Act was signed into law in March 2020, though, we’ll have to wait and see how the FDA handles this under the new reform provisions, which will take months.
At the Skin Cancer Foundation, we want more sunscreen choices for you, not fewer. Keep your eye out for a possible new kid on the sunscreen block: PARSOL Shield. Also known as bemotrizinol (BEMT), it has been used in sunscreens in other countries since 1999. New Jersey-based DSM, which provides ingredients to the personal care market, is performing the research to support an FDA GRASE determination of this ingredient for the U.S. sunscreen market. Carl D’Ruiz, senior manager of personal care regulatory, scientific and governmental affairs for DSM, says PARSOL Shield provides long-proven safe and effective broad-spectrum protection against UVB and UVA radiation and that the U.S. is long overdue for such an ingredient.
The OTC Reform Act is a promising first step toward speeding up the approval process for newer and even better sun protection ingredients for Americans. If PARSOL Shield is approved by the FDA, it will be the first new sunscreen ingredient in the U.S. in nearly 20 years. D’Ruiz says, “We’re keeping our fingers crossed!”
Research is showing that many parts of the light spectrum may wreak havoc on the skin by generating free radicals. These unstable oxygen molecules produce inflammation and damage cell function and your skin’s DNA. The damage can cause mutations that lead to skin cancer. Studies have shown that antioxidants help fight off free radicals and prevent the damage they do that can cause skin cancer.
Besides encouraging you to eat a diet high in the colorful fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants, many dermatologists also suggest applying cosmetics and sunscreens that include them to help neutralize the free radicals and also help repair some of the damage from pollutants.
Better Textures, Formats and Performance
The way a sunscreen feels to you is crucial. Dr. Sarnoff says, “When patients ask me, ‘What’s the best sunscreen?’, I say, ‘The best sunscreen is the one you’re going to use.’ If you like the feel and smell of it, if it feels good on your skin, doesn’t sting your eyes, that’s what you’re going to use. If it feels gunky, greasy, thick, oily, if it makes your skin break out, if you don’t like the smell, then it may not be the best product for you.”
“When patients ask me, ‘What’s the best sunscreen?’, I say, ‘The best sunscreen is the one you’re going to use.’”
Research and development experts are working on these issues to create products that work for different concerns, whether it’s for those who have oily skin and are prone to acne, for those who want an elegant look and feel, with, for example, ceramides for moisturizing, or for athletes who sweat a lot and want a dry feel.
Scientists are creating ways to improve sunscreen’s “film” so it may stay on the skin longer, not migrate into your eyes or be more water resistant without needing frequent reapplication. Others are looking at ways to keep the product on the surface of the skin and not absorb as much into the bloodstream, or to resist degrading at high temperatures. See the sun protection products that The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends for safe and effective use.
The sunscreen industry has been listening carefully to consumers who seek multifunctional products — those that protect against skin cancer, sunburns, dark spots and wrinkles while also moisturizing or providing antiaging or beauty benefits. These may include DNA repair enzymes to mitigate damage. Other products may promise to hydrate, lighten dark spots or to improve the overall appearance of your skin. Dr. Sarnoff says, “Women and men today are paying money for Botox, for fillers, for laser procedures. People are learning what to look for on the label and use good multifunctional sunscreens every day to help them protect their investment.”
You’ve probably heard of the gut microbiome and how having the right balance of bacteria in your digestive system can help keep you healthy. Did you know your skin has a microbiome, too? Researchers like Richard Gallo, MD, PhD, founding chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of California, San Diego, have found bacteria on the skin that are beneficial and help keep you healthy, too. A healthy skin microbiome has greater resistance to sunburn. Many factors can alter the skin microbiome, including the inflammation caused by sun exposure. “With the skin, you can measure microbes right on the surface,” says Dr. Gallo. “And you can get to it much easier, just by applying a cream. In the skincare industry, there are ways of treating the skin to maximize good bacteria over bad, just as in the gut.”
Researchers are looking at ways to formulate sunscreens to help maintain a healthy microbiome. These include changing the pH level, as well as adding probiotic live cultures, ingredients to help maintain the moisture barrier or alternative preservatives that won’t destroy the good bacteria.
“Clean and Pure” Products
Many consumers are looking for products that they consider clean or safe. There is no single definition for what this means, and claims may not always be based on scientific research. Nevertheless, they take hold in the public consciousness — and retailers are listening. Criteria may include that a product is safe for babies or for sensitive skin. For others, it may mean that a product contains no phthalates or parabens, is free from animal testing, was produced from renewable sources or was made from organic or vegan ingredients. “Clean” may also mean that the sunscreen is free from certain “chemical” active ingredients that some consider controversial. Read labels carefully.
Julie Bain is senior director of science & education for The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Julia Langer is science & education content manager for The Skin Cancer Foundation.