Did You Know? Products boasting high SPF can be very misleading.

by Marie Veronique Nadeau

The most effective way to delay signs of aging is to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with good UVA protection daily—not just when you go to the beach. But be aware: Products boasting high SPF numbers can be very misleading.

The claim:

High SPF ratings, in the 40s, 50s and even higher, indicate complete, broad-spectrum, UVB/UVA protection. The implication is that the higher the number, the greater your level of protection.

The facts:

  1. SPF (Sun Protection Factor) refers to UVB protection only—not UVA.
  2. High SPF more often than not means a low UVA protection factor. Out of 446 beach and sport sunscreens with SPF ratings of 30+ tested, nearly two-thirds of them got a flunking grade for UVA protection from the EWG.
  3. B=burning, A=aging. UVB are the burning rays that penetrate to the epidermis. UVA damage, however, is potentially more serious. UVA rays enter the dermis, are present from sun up to sundown, and penetrate glass and clouds. UVA radiation suppresses the immune system, cross links collagen and elastin, damages DNA, turns melanin darker, harms connective tissue and elevates the risk of the deadly skin cancer melanoma (Cadet 2009, Draelos 2010, IARC 2009; FDA 2007a, Garland 2003, Godar 2009, Gorham 2007).

The solution:

Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen containing zinc oxide, preferably non-nano, i.e., particles >100 nm.

The ZnO Advantage

Broad spectrum:

Zinc oxide is the only sunscreen ingredient to protect across the entire UV spectrum; UVA both short (320-340 nm, a.k.a UVA-2) and long (340-400 nm, a.k.a. UVA-1), as well as UVB rays. Regular zinc oxide also blocks visible light up to wavelengths 700 nm, whereas zinc nanoparticles block only up to 380-400 nm, depending on the specific formulation. As a single ingredient, zinc oxide, especially bulk, is the broadest range sunscreen on the market.

Safety:

Zinc oxide has a long history of safe use. It’s not irritating, and it is compatible with sensitive skin. In fact, zinc oxide is an anti-inflammatory, widely used in treating various forms of dermatitis/skin irritation including diaper rash.

Stability:

Bulk zinc oxide (particles >100 nm) is highly stable under most conditions. Zinc oxide nanoparticles are far more reactive/catalytic than regular zinc oxide and rather quickly break down in the presence of UV to generate free radicals. Most manufacturers use coated zinc oxide nanoparticles to minimize free radical formation.

A scientific perspective:

An elegant study by Dr. Brian Gulson et. al., definitively demonstrated that small amounts of zinc from zinc oxide particles in sunscreens are absorbed through human skin. This suggests that particles, especially nanoparticles, of other substances used in sunscreens, such as titanium dioxide, probably also penetrate past the epidermal barrier. Zinc oxide breaks down into zinc ions that the body can utilize; titanium dioxide does not break down. It’s this difference that begs the question: What happens to some of the substances we put on our skin?

Stay tuned for an in-depth look at that important question. Till then, play it safe and stick with zinc oxide.


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