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Can sunscreens be clean?

Sunscreen products stand accused of being bad for marine flora and fauna, and sometimes even bad for human health, and have had the finger pointed at them in recent years. They are not mere beauty products, since they address a public health issue, protection of the skin against the sun’s rays. So can they be clean? And can we go without them?

While ecologists and marinophiles openly vilify sunscreens, dermatologists advocate wearing them all year round, whereas some influencers encourage their followers to stop using them entirely to protect the planet. And 92% of French survey respondents would like sunscreens to be more respectful of the environment (2019 YouGov study, 1000 people).

What with chemical filters standing accused of being endocrine disruptors, and in some cases of destroying coral colonies, and the problem of nanoparticles in mineral sunscreens, the issue is a thorny one.

We may as well level with you right away – a clean sunscreen product is yet to materialise. Because it’s a product that’s highly complex to formulate, which both addresses a public health issue and meets a need to bring a degree of pleasure into the equation to ensure good compliance (meaning regular use). Moreover, although in Europe it’s deemed a beauty product – but with very stringent regulations – in Japan it’s a “quasi-drug”, and in the USA and Canada it’s an OTC (over the counter) product, as is paracetamol, for example.

Filters in the dock

Sunscreen products are suspected of polluting water and killing coral, and also of being endocrine disruptors.

Certain chemical filters banned due to their environmental impact

Chemical filters absorb the energy from UV rays and cover the whole solar spectrum: UVB, UVA, long UVA and blue light. While they filter UV rays on the skin, they also do so in the water. This means that the thousands of tons of non-biodegradable solar filters discharged into bathing water each year prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the sea bed. This disrupts conditions for the organisms that live there.

  • Chemical filters banned in tourism-heavy areas:

In 2020, the archipelago of Palau was the first to ban 10 ingredients, including oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 on the INCI list) and octinoxate (ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate), two chemical filters that have also been outlawed in Hawaii since 1 January 2021. Territories with coral reefs, like the American Virgin Islands and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, have also prohibited octocrylene. Sometimes the use of any sunscreen whatsoever is prohibited, not least to tour certain chasms and caves in Mexico and in Lifou in New Caledonia.
A great many studies have shown that these filters have a negative impact on marine organisms. To name but a few: in December 2018, a study conducted by French researchers revealed that octocrylene accumulated in coral in the form of fatty acid derivatives, and could interfere with their metabolism. A new French study dated March 2021 shows that as soon as octocrylene is produced a chemical reaction turns it into benzophenone. In addition, its concentration in finished products automatically increases over time. Furthermore, a study published in 2015 by researchers at the University of Tel Aviv revealed that oxybenzone – or benzophenone – causes deformation in the morphology of coral larvae by damaging their DNA.

  • Une interdiction à relaProhibition to be put into perspective

The conditions under which experiments are conducted as part of these studies are mostly very far removed from what happens in real life. This is because exposure to the chemicals is generally extreme – brief yet of high intensity – and does not reproduce the conditions in the natural coral environment. The benchmark method of testing the effects of sunscreens consists of taking small coral samples, bringing them into a laboratory and exposing them to various concentrations of sunscreen (or its ingredients). Then, the quantity of seaweed released, the colour of the coral and the number of survivors, etc., are measured.

This being the case, it’s not so much the quantity of sunscreen applied when bathing that’s harmful, but the overall aggregation of filters that end up in water, originating from multiples uses of these substances (in food production, construction, etc.). So the concentrations of benzophenone found in samples taken from the bathing zones of Californian beaches are much lower than those measured in sediments sampled near sewage outlets – where no-one goes bathing – and those used to pick up their negative impact in laboratories. So while sunscreens play a role in the bleaching of coral in the natural environment, its action is minimal compared to the mass-scale impact of water warming and acidification, discharge of poorly-treated waste water, plastic pollution and carbon-heavy discharge.

What about endocrine disruptors?

The other big accusation levelled against chemical filters is that of endocrine disruption. We’ll say it again – nothing has been proven, as it’s very difficult to demonstrate. However, the following chemical filters are suspected of it: avobenzone, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate), benzophenone-1 et -3 (oxybenzone), octocrylene, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC) and homosalate. Under the standards set by EU regulations, the quantities applied, confined to a few months per year, do not pose a problem. But discharged into water, unfiltered by treatment plants, they get ingested by the living organisms that end up on our plates.

Are mineral sunscreens really harmless?

Under EU regulations, two mineral solar filters are permitted: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They are referred to as mineral sunscreens since they act like parasols, forming something like little mirrors stuck to one another on the surface of the skin which reflect light away. Organic sunscreen product brands state that they are harmless to human health and the environment, and therefore a healthy alternative to chemical filters. Yet…

  • Not so good for the environment

Tests have revealed that exposure to zinc oxide disrupts photosynthesis in seaweed living in coral colonies, which bleaches them. Some standard brands and some others that are certified organic have therefore cut it out of their products. In addition, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are not biodegradable and tend to accumulate in aquatic environments.

Another problem is that all mineral sunscreens contain a considerable quantity of these two substances, in the form of nanoparticles – extremely fine particles – which can penetrate biological barriers. A study conducted by the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands showed that in this way, these microscopic elements disrupt the feeding behaviour and reproduction of mussels. They are also known to modify the genetic code of certain fish species, preventing them from reproducing. Other studies state that nanoparticles could be toxic to plankton.

  • A risk to human health?

Since 2006, the WHO has classed titanium dioxide (nano-particulate or otherwise) as a possible carcinogen when inhaled in large amounts. That’s why its formulators and production staff must handle it with care.

Another problem: mineral-based sunscreen products often get criticised for being thick and white. Yet however good the coverage may seem, it doesn’t mean that these products offer better protection. Because where conventional sunscreens use a combination of between 3 and 7 filters to yield a filtering system that covers the whole solar spectrum (UVB, UVA, long UVA and blue light), in the organic segment only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are permitted. This makes it difficult – all the more if they are not used in nano form – to yield protection that’s uniform and highly effective, not least against long UVA rays (which penetrate the skin more deeply). In this non-nano (meaning larger) form, they don’t cover the skin completely, as they tend to form “clumps”. And in partly [nano] form – to yield more fluid, transparent formulations – they become potentially toxic, especially to skin that’s particularly permeable: due to eczema, following hair removal, with micro cuts or sunburn! Lastly, the [nano] wording is only compulsory beyond the 10% mark. So in fact, all mineral sunscreens contain at least a small proportion of nanoparticles.

Des formules en grande évolutioFormulations going through big changes

Conscients de l’impact écoloSunscreen specialists are aware of the ecological and human impact of their formulations, and have begun research work to improve their products.

Optimising filter content

Over the past ten years or so, the leaders of the sunscreen segment have been reviewing their formulations. On the back of studies and discoveries, they now avoid certain filters that have been vilified. They are also improving synergies between filters in order to use fewer of them, and also lowering their concentration within sunscreens. Where some sunscreens included (and sometimes still include) seven associated sunscreens, some brands have managed to use no more than three or four to yield protection that’s just as effective. And to reduce their concentration within the formulation to less than 20%.

These same laboratories try to only use filters that are not water soluble, so that they don’t spread through the sea.

Améliorer la formule globalImproving the overall formulation

As we have just seen, filters only account for 20-30% of the formulation. So it’s important to look at what else is in it: silicone, mineral oils, ethoxylated molecules (those ending in -eth), alcohol or parabens. Again, more and more producers are taking out ingredients that are harmful to the environment, either because they are of petrochemical origin and bioaccumulative (mineral oils and silicone), or because they disrupt ecosystems as volatile types of silicone do (cyclypentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane and BHT).

At the same time, they are making finished products as waterproof as possible, so that they spread through the water as little as possible.

Perfecting biodegradability


One way or another, sunscreen products end up in the sea. So 25% of the sunscreen is said to be spread through the water after 20 minutes’ bathing. And since there’s always a little of it left on the skin by the evening, after showering the rest goes indirectly into the water via waste water. In this way, each year, tourism generates the discharge of some 25,000 tons of sunscreen products into the water of tropical countries, of which 4,000 tons in areas home to coral.
This is why producers have also made changes to the biodegradability of their products, to the point of exceeding 90% biodégradability.

Lastly, “non-ecotoxicity” is now tested in laboratories on seaweed, coral and plankton by oceanological research centres: the oceanological observatory of Banyuls-sur-Mer, the Mediterranean institute of biodiversity and ecology and the Science Centre of Monaco.

Packaging items with less plastic

Beyond formulations, we are well aware that the other problem around sunscreen products is the tons of plastic bottles that encroach on beaches and end up in the sea. Although it’s mainly water or carbonated drinks bottles that sully the planet’s best beauty spots, the beauty product industry is aware that it needs to join in with the collective effort by reducing its use of virgin (newly-produced) plastic.

That is why a number of large conglomerates now offer bottles made from recyclable and partially or 100% recycled plastic. So once the cream bottle is empty, it goes into the recycling bin (in countries where recycling schemes exist). The start-up Carbios has come up with an innovation in that its PET bottles are endlessly recyclable thanks to an enzyme-based process. As for tubes, the first recyclable tube made partially out of cardboard has been developed, cutting the weight of its plastic component by 45%. So there’s still some way to go along the road to perfection, but progress is being made.

Sunscreen – a public health issue

While sunscreen products are not perfect, they are no ordinary beauty products. They meet a need related to public health.

The sun – a health hazard

Each year, here in France at least, more than 100,000 new skin cancer cases are recorded, 15,500 of which are melanomas (2021 overview of cancer cases in France). According to the WHO, case rates of melanoma and other skin cancers have increased over past decades (with a case rate that’s doubling every 10 years in countries with Caucasian populations). At the present time, between 2 and 3 million non-melanocytic skin cancers and 132,000 malignant melanomas are recorded worldwide each year. According to Skin Cancer Foundation Statistics, skin cancer accounts for one in three cancers diagnosed. The big culprits are the sun and its ultraviolet rays.

But the sun has other, much more common harmful effects on the skin that can be observed: sunburn, sun allergies, actinic keratosis, sun spots and photo-ageing.

The best protection: clothing and shade

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Obviously, the best sun protection is still afforded by a T-shirt or loose-fitting garment, a hat, sunglasses and staying in the shade. Any exposure must be for as short a period as possible, during the least-warmest times of day. But that leaves walks, hikes, exercise sessions or gardening, during which the exposed parts of the body (nose, ears, neck, décolleté, hands, ankles) must be protected.

Essential sun protection

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So sun protection is non negotiable whenever you’re exposed. And by exposure, we mean (in France at least) any outdoor activity between May and September. It’s better to apply a sunscreen product for four months of the year than risk getting sunburn, sun allergies, sun spots or actinic keratosis (red, rough lesions related to overexposure, one of the top reasons for dermatologist consultations) or cancer. So opt for a sunscreen product that’s in line with your convictions, and suits your tastes when it comes to formats (oil, spray or milk). In addition, behave responsibly by baring little skin and donning sunglasses and a T-shirt or dress. It’s a question of benefit/risk ratio.

Regulation that reduces the scope of possible changes

There are few brands making sunscreen products compared to those making make-up or skincare products. And as the years go by, we’re even seeing laboratories quit this segment. This goes to show how difficult it is to formulate these products, which tolerate no cutting of corners, correctly and effectively. As for making your own sunscreen product at home – forget it!

A positive list of filters under various regulations

Since sunscreen products are held to a much tougher obligation to deliver results than moisturisers or shampoos, they are governed by much more stringent regulations. The positive list of permitted UV filters is one of them.

Sun protection products belong to the beauty product family, and are subject to EC Regulation No. 1223/2009. Appendix VI of this Regulation currently permits the use of around 30 filters, which are assessed by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, and sets a permitted upper limit on their concentration. Laboratories must draw on this positive list to formulate any skincare product claiming to offer protection against UV rays.

The difficulty of having new filters registered

Afin d’To improve the quality of filters and bring changes to sun protection, a great many laboratories are working on new protection processes, via filters or other means. But they are coming up against several significant obstacles:

  • The complexity of finding effective new molecules, not least when looking to achieve naturalness with plant-based ingredients and no longer those derived from petrochemicals.
  • Time, as it takes several years to test a product for effectiveness and harmlessness as well as non-toxicity.
  • Once these stages have been completed, there’s still the regulatory barrier to break through, and the slow pace and sometimes protectionism involved in bureaucracy. Pierre Fabre group, which has just (in 2021) put a new filter on the market, took some 10 years to get it added to the EU list. As for the FDA, the American authority is only just starting to work on the list of permitted filters dating back to 1974, well before the adverse effects of UVA rays came to light and before anyone was concerned about the environment! Not forgetting the FDA’s reluctance when it comes to filters that come from non-American laboratories!

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to understand why it’s hard to bring innovation to the sun protection segment. And most importantly, why some laboratories that are clean devotees give up, as they are not satisfied with the solutions that they were able to provide in the short term.

While there is as yet no sunscreen that’s truly clean, big steps forward have been taken when it comes to the effectiveness of protection and environmental responsibility.

Look how far we have come between the products of the early 2000s and those of today – and what can we say about the factor 0 monoi suntan lotions of the 70s! On that basis, we can hope that a few years from now formulations will be designed to be cleaner, more eco-friendly and healthier, having settled their differences with filters (if they are still around).

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