As sun protection products from all over the world have become available to consumers, they are now being confronted with a confusing choice of sun radiation protection claims. While they are meant to inform us about the level of protection a sunscreen provides, the different regulations, labels, and how the claims are tested can be overwhelming and confusing.
Research into understanding what is important for effective sun protection, a growing problem worldwide, is an important and continuous process. As new findings become available, pharmaceutical companies are identifying and developing new ingredients that make sun protection products more effective. This will impact labelling and claims that can be made. So, the situation is not static, but changes all the time.
Also, different parts of the world are also not using the same approach to defining the level of protection provided. So, as products from different parts of the world become available to consumers in any country there will continue to be some confusion.
One of the biggest challenges to manufactures and distributors of sun protection products is the education of the medical professionals who recommend products as well as consumers themselves who use the products.
Basic information about the various sunscreen claims and labels.
There is a difference between how inorganic (physical) and organic filters work
- Inorganic (physical) filters:
- Inorganic filters reflect or scatter the sun’s radiation rays, they act much like a mirror reflecting light.
- They therefor do not penetrate the skin.
- They reflect the full spectrum of radiation, not just certain wavelengths.
- Products with inorganic filters are often referred to as sun blocks.
- Products with physical filters are very photo-stable.
- Mostly these products contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and phycocorail.
- The scientific community agree that natural filters offer superior protection from the full spectrum of radiation than organic filters do.
- Inorganic filters:
- Inorganic filters filter radiation so that fewer of the rays reach the deeper levels of the skin.
- They therefor do penetrate the skin.
- These are often referred to as sunscreens and not sun blocks.
- Depending on the formulation these products can:
- Protect against the full spectrum of radiation
- Be photo-stable
- Consumers should however make sure that there is evidence for these claims.
What to look for when you choose or use a sun protection product
- Photo-stability of the product
It is important that a product remains photo-stable when exposed to sunlight. Some products do not remain stable and therefore become ineffective a short time after exposure to direct sunlight. You are then protected.
- Water-resistant or water-proof capabilities
It is important that a product has water resistant or waterproof capabilities. If it does not, it simply washes off when swimming or sweating, leaving the skin unprotected.
- It is advisable that the product is soothing, moisturising and revitalising
It is important to remember that whether one actually burns or not, damage occurs when the skin comes into contact with direct or even indirect sunlight, especially when combined with water. Products that contain soothing, moisturising and revitalising ingredients help to combat this.
- It is advisable that the product is hypoallergenic
Products that are hypoallergenic will make them suitable for all skin types and lessens the chance that the skin becomes irritated when exposed to the sunlight.
- The amount of product that should be applied
Consumers must ensure that they apply the sun protection product as per instruction on the packaging. Many consumers do not apply sufficient product for the level of protection required.
- Re-applying the product as prescribed.
It is critical that the consumer re-applies the product as per the instruction on the packaging. Many consumers do not re-apply product as is required for a continued level of protection.
SPF: Sun Protection Factor
- What it does for your skin:
SPF factors only deal with the UVB part of the ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun and reaches the surface of the earth. UVB energy causes redness and sunburn on the skin.
- How it works:
SPF is tested on a panel of ± 20 sun-sensitive people (depending on the country) and it compares how much longer it takes for UVB to cause redness on the skin. So, an SPF of 30 means that, if it took 10 minutes for redness to appear in unprotected skin, it’ll take around 30 times that (i.e. 300 minutes) for the same symptoms to appear on the skin if the SPF 30 product was applied sufficiently and correctly.
· The SPF scale is not linear relative to how much UVB it blocks. For example, the level of UVB protection for an SPF 30 (96.7% UVB protection) is not double that of an SPF 15 (93% UVB protection). There is only a 3.7% increase. This does cause confusion amongst consumers who believe that there is a significant increase in the amount of protection they have.
- Unfortunately, it is also not an indication of the level of protection provided against the other forms of radiation that causes damage to the skin e.g. UVA, IR and High Energy Visible Light (including Blue Light).
- One should therefor never only look at the SPF of a sun protection product.
UVA: Ultraviolet A
- More on UVA:
The SPF factor was developed at a time when we didn’t fully understand how damaging other forms of ultraviolet radiation was to our skin. UVA makes up the majority of the UV radiation that comes from the sun and reaches the surface of the earth. It is only relatively recently that we realize how bad it was for our skin.
- What it does to your skin:
UVA radiation doesn’t cause as much redness or sunburn, but it damages the basic structure of the skin, which leads to mutations and in worst cases, cancer. For skin care the implication is that it speeds up ageing (wrinkles, lines, and saggy skin), and it causes hyperpigmentation. UVA radiation penetrates the deeper levels of skin and is present all through the day, even on cloudy days.
- How to protect your skin against UVA:
Nowadays, there are better sunscreen filters that protect against UVA radiation and there are tests that have been developed to create a “protection factor” for UVA.
High Energy Visible Light (including Blue Light)
- More about High Energy Visible Light (HEV) and Blue Light
- HEV (High energy visible radiation) penetrates the skin much deeper than UVB and UVA rays and can be seen throughout daylight hours.
- Visible light includes blue light which has up to 80% of the intensity of visible light. Blue light is emitted by devices such as smart phones, computers and TV screens.
- What it does to your skin:
- HEV penetrates the skin deeper than UVA and almost as deep as IR.
- HEV induces oxidative stress, weakens the epidermal barrier, enhances hyperpigmentation and damages the extracellular matrix to create a situation where the UVA, UVB and IR rays can cause damage more easily.
- Oxidative stress also leads to, for example, microcirculatory slow down, dark eye circles, bags under the eyes, dull complexion and excessive wrinkling.
- Because Blue Light is emitted by devices people are exposed to these inside offices and homes, and in the dark, making protection against blue light critical 24 hours a day.
- How to protect your skin against High Energy Visible Light:
New generation sun protection products contain ingredients to protect against HEV radiation and Blue Light. The regulations related to claims and packaging re HEV have not as yet been standardised
IR radiation: Infrared radiation
- More on IR radiation
Infrared radiation is also known as thermal radiation.
- What it does to your skin:
IR radiation penetrates the skin much deeper than either UVA and UVB. It also causes ageing and a decrease in elasticity and the moisture levels of the skin. Because it negatively impacts on the DNA structure of the skin, damage caused by UVA, UVB and HEV radiation is increased.
- How to protect your skin against IR:
Nowadays, there are better sunscreen filters that protect against IR radiation. The regulations related to claims and packaging re IR also differ widely across the world, many not even mentioning this at all.
The Cosmetics Europe seal of approval
Cosmetics Europe have the following seal that may be displayed on products should they conform to the necessary requirements for protection against UVA, UVB and IR (this is comparable to the CANSA labelling in South Africa, but with more stringent requirements set to qualify to use it):
Cosmetics Europe: European Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association
The Cosmetics Europe protocols are currently the most recognised standards that prevail internationally for these products. This is especially true of sun protection products.
UVAPF testing method used by Cosmetics Europe
- What it stands for:
A testing method for used for testing the level UVA protection in products.
- How it works:
Cosmetic requires that at least 33.33 % of the SPF factor of a sun protection product must be based on the level of UVA protection it provides before they can make the claim that it protects against UVA radiation.
- UVAPF testing and products with natural filters
Because inorganic (natural) filters reflect or scatter the sun’s rays, UVAPF testing does not work on these products. If a natural filter product is selected the consumer must make sure that there are other independent studies available to support claims made.
PPD: Persistent Pigment Darkening
How it works:
Used in Asia and some countries in Europe, this system is similar to the SPF scenario, with the main difference being that it looks at the effect of UVA exposure not UVB. PPD is tested on a panel of people exposed to UVA light. The time it takes for their skin to tan is analysed, comparing the results between unprotected and protected skin. So, a PPD of 10 means that it will take around 10 times longer for your skin to tan, compared to if it was unprotected
PA: Protection Grade of UVA
- How it works:
Used in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, the PA system simplifies and groups the ratings from a PPD test. It ranges from PA+ to PA++++. PA+ being a sunscreen with a PPD of 2 to less than 4; PA++ being one with PPD of 4 to 8; PA+++ being one from 8 to 16 and, finally; PA++++ being one with a PPD of 16 or greater.
- Because of the way PA is set up, two sunscreens with a PPD of 20 and a PPD of 50 would both be rated as PA+++ or PA+++, and there’s no way to tell which one offers the higher protection.
- It also does not provide any information on the level of UVB (SPF), IR and HEV protection provided
- More to know:
Not all countries have updated the highest rating to PA++++ yet, still using PA+++ as their limit for maximum protection.
Broad-spectrum: Protection Grade of UVA
- How it works:
Used in the U.S. and Canada, this is an easier rating to pass—and doesn’t provide a good understanding of how well it will protect the skin from UVA or IR damage. To achieve a broad-spectrum rating, 90% of the total UV absorption must fall below 370 nanometres which is the wavelength of ultraviolet light. This doesn’t necessarily translate to good UVA protection.
- A sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB qualifies as broad spectrum:
There is some criticism from consumer advocates over the fact that the testing required by the regulators in the USA to earn that ranking is pass / fail (meaning that if a sunscreen provides any measurable protection from UVA rays, it can call itself broad spectrum, even if that level of protection is very low. Other countries, however, have different regulations on sun protection products, so many sunscreens from Europe and Asia show much more specific rankings for the levels of UVA protection.