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How eco-friendly is your sun protection?

  • Knowledge
How eco-friendly is your sun protection?

As global temperatures continue to rise, skin cancer awareness continues to grow. The knowledge which beauty experts share by shining a light on the sun’s role in ageing, protecting our skin from those harmful rays has never been so important. Consumers are warming up to that need, too. Although sales may have slumped when the coronavirus pandemic halted everyone’s travel plans, the sunscreen market is expected to grow by 7% CAGR over the next decade. The ‘wear sunscreen’ meme has finally been absorbed.

But while we’re wising up to the need for a daily SPF, how much does the average person know about the ingredients they’re applying and how eco-friendly is your sun protection?

Up to 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are shed into the world’s oceans every year, where common chemicals like oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene can all pose a serious threat to aquatic life. Oxybenzone in particular has been shown to stunt the growth of juvenile coral, making it more susceptible to bleaching and less resilient against the impact of climate change. Concern is so strong that earlier this year, the Pacific nation of Palau became the first country to ban sunscreens containing reef-toxic ingredients. Hawaii will follow suit with a similar ban in 2021. And even if we’re miles from the sea, chemicals washed into our water supply via sinks and showers can still find their way into vulnerable ecosystems.

Meanwhile, clean beauty advocates worry that mass market sun products might not be doing our health any favours either. Oxybenzone is a known allergen and eye irritant, while a report published this year by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that many common ingredients in chemical sunscreens can linger in the body and blood for days after application. While the benefits of protecting ourselves against UV exposure are still indisputable, Fact.MR suggests that there could be lucrative opportunities in the move towards “natural ingredients and organic formulations” that offer peace of mind for both people and planet.

This means mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide particles, which act like tiny mirrors to physically block the sun’s rays. Think of the white-nosed cricketers and surfers of years gone by. “Artificial sunscreens absorb the ultraviolet light from the sun and later neutralise it, whereas natural sunscreens directly reflect and scatter UV rays,” explains Dr Mark Smith, Director General of the International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association (NATRUE). That chalky finish is one of the reasons that cosmetic brands have opted for sheer, chemical formulations in recent decades (their cheaper price is another). As the consumer perception of luxury shifts from glossy packaging to responsible, quality products, mineral sunscreen is making a welcome comeback. This time, sophisticated formulations make it much more wearable.

Butterfly Mark Certified Weleda is one brand leading the way. The mineral formulations in its Edelweiss Sun Care range are approved by NATRUE, guaranteeing only 100% naturally-derived ingredients. The Swiss mountain flower might be most famous for its starring role in The Sound of Music, but here it’s antioxidant properties and resilience in full sunlight provide the inspiration for a high-performance, skin-kind formula.

“A common misconception is that because mineral sunscreens leave a pale sheen on the skin, they are comedogenic – but Weleda sunscreens are non-comedogenic, and won’t block or clog the pores,” the brand explains. It also notes that the subtle white sheen can be incredibly helpful to parents applying sun creams to their children’s skin, making it easy to spot areas that aren’t yet covered.

“Another common misconception about sun protection is that natural sunscreens are possibly not as effective as synthetic ones,” adds Weleda. “In fact, mineral sunscreens are often ultra-waterproof and available in high protection factors. They become effective immediately on application, with no wait time necessary, and they are not easily washed off or towelled off.”

Another brand with the goods to back up its claims is Colorescience. Its Sunforgettable Total Protection is a firm favourite among beauty editors, promising protection against pollution, infrared radiation and the blue light emitted by our ever-present devices, as well as broad-spectrum UVA/UVB defence that doesn’t leave a problematic white cast on darker skintones. The range extends beyond face and body creams to include sun protection make-up, available in an inclusive range of shades – and unlike many inferior sunscreens, fans rave about its results on oily or acne-prone skin.

Butterfly Mark Certified Kiehl’s uses titanium dioxide in its Ultra Light Daily UV Defense Mineral Sunscreen, which is tinted to counteract white streaks and make skipping make-up a more appealing option. Award-winning organic skincare brand Green People boasts carbon-neutral, plant-based packaging, with 20p from each sale of its reef-safe, scent-free sun cream donated to the Marine Conservation Society. And cult favourite Drunk Elephant is working hard to send minerals mainstream, with 20% zinc and a potent cocktail of antioxidants in its Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defence.

But if the thicker mineral formulations don’t appeal, it’s still possible to find kinder chemical protection. Milky Sun Spray from French pharmacy stalwart Caudalie is free from octinoxate, octocrylene, oxybenzone and nanoparticle filters, with a light and easily-absorbed texture that lives up to its lactic namesake.

Of course the world of ‘clean’ beauty, as with so many industries attempting to ride the wave of conscious consumerism, can be open to greenwashing and misleading claims. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), only about a quarter of sunscreens on the US market provide reliable UVA protection without toxic ingredients. Nanoparticles of zinc oxide can also be allergens, which is why the phrase ‘non-nano’ often appears in product descriptions.

Finally, it’s important to note that even the best ingredients on the market can’t compete with the original protectors: fabric and shade. “Sunscreens should not be a person’s only tool to prevent sunburn, nor should they be used to prolong time spent in the sun,” warns the EWG. “Protective clothing, sunglasses, hats and sun avoidance are more reliable ways to protect the skin from UV rays.”

Beauty brands must take responsibility for their own formulations, but it’s still up to individual sun-worshippers to know when it’s time to take cover.

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Written by - Lauren Bravo

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