SPF: The Good, The Bad and the Not So Beautiful 

By: Kat Burki
August 5, 2020

SPF stands for sun protective factor. It’s a measurement of how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet (UV) B rays. UVB rays are what cause the most damage to the top layer of skin (epidermis) and where skin cancer occurs. There are currently two types of UV protectors: Physical and Chemical. All sunscreen manufacturers whether physical or chemical must abide by FDA regulations to make a SPF claim. My Epidemiology thesis paper in graduate school was on the dramatic decrease of skin cancer cases in Australia after the concerted efforts of their government to provide education on prevention and detection, hats, sunscreen, etc. to its citizens. As these campaigns increased momentum and became mainstream, we began to think that the higher the SPF the better. Beauty manufacturers started adding SPF to beauty products, to make sun protection easier. The bad news is that the chemicals found in SPFs began to have negative side effects of their own.

A Woman in a large hat protecting herself from the sun
A woman sits by the water, protected by SPF lotion, enjoying the scenery.

Chemical sunscreens typically include a combination of two to six of the following active ingredients: Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate and Octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. A handful of products combine zinc oxide with chemical filters. From the (EWG): When the FDA began to consider sunscreen safety, it grandfathered in active ingredients from the late 1970s without reviewing the evidence of their potential hazards.

In February 2019, the agency released its final draft sunscreens monograph, which contains insufficient health and safety data to designate 12 of the 16 sunscreen filters allowed for use in the U.S. as “generally recognized as safe and effective” also known as GRASE. These 12 ingredients include some of the most commonly used UV filters including: Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate and Avobenzone.

According to the agency, “nearly all of these sunscreen active ingredients… have limited or no data characterizing their absorption.” In 2019 and 2020, FDA published two studies showing that the ingredients Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate and Avobenzone are all systemically absorbed into the body after a single use (Matta 2019, Matta 2020). The FDA also found that the sunscreen ingredients could be detected on the skin and in blood weeks after application ended (Matta 2020).

SO WHAT DO WE DO? 

First, physical block ingredients are not linked to disease states and from most studies do not absorb into the body. Secondly, you can use clothes and hats as physical blocks. Avoid the sun during its strongest times of the day and at all costs do not burn.

Read up on other SPF’s such as some oils that can prove beneficial from application and consumption. Apply your physical block after your skincare and makeup. Obviously avoid products with chemical blocks but physical blocks also do not belong in your products. They will disrupt the skin benefiting ingredients and purposeful solutions that could greatly enhance the skin in its protective and healing abilities.

Lastly, schedule an annual visit with your dermatologist for skin screens and monitor irregular moles or other marks.