Summer is here and Boots have devoted a large section of their shops to what they call ‘summer products’. This is a very creative bit of marketing and got me interested enough to go and have a look. Sunscreens are important. Large amounts of sunlight generate free radicals in the skin that can cause skin aging and cancer. There was a specific section devoted to sunscreen products for children. My kids are both old enough to make their own decisions now, but it got me thinking about what kind of sunscreen would be suitable for small children. What would I actually want to use on my own kids?
There are two ways of blocking UV rays. Some chemicals are able to absorb high energy UV radiation and re-emit it as safer lower frequency radiation. There are lots of options for this and hundreds, maybe thousands, of patents for clever molecules and combinations of molecules that soak up the maximum amount of UV. The best known of these is probably octylmethoxycinnamate. I have never been very keen on chemical UV screens. Although there is ample safety data on them, I have just never liked the idea. I am not convinced that the process of absorbing the UV itself isn’t potentially going to release free radicals. I should stress that I don’t have any evidence to back up this misgiving. I am much happier with the other approach which is to simply reflect the light with small pigment particles. There are two materials used for this purpose: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are in effect tiny mirrors that block the sun’s rays from getting into the skin in the first place. There are two drawbacks. The first is a headache for the formulator. You need to suspend heavy particles in your sunscreen – you are up against gravity here. The other is that the product does literally reflect light and you can see it on the skin. Put on enough and the person using it has a ghostly appearance.
But we are talking about products for children, so I think that a temporary appearance isn’t too much of a problem.
Next consideration is the SPF level. The SPF is one of those well intentioned initiatives that doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect. We all have different skins and so the amount of sun protection we need varies. The idea behind the SPF rating is it is supposed to give you an idea of how much protection a particular product gives you. The idea is that if you burn in the sun in 10 minutes, use an SPF10 product and it will take 10 times longer to burn. So rather than 10 minutes of sun burning you, you now need 100 minutes. Very logical, and you might think very sensible. But there are a couple of problems. For a start a large number of people don’t realise what the number means so they just buy the highest number. There were quite a few products on the shelf marked up with SPF50. This in theory allows our 10 minute burner to stay out in the sun for over 8 hours. How many people need this degree of protection? I would suggest not very many. But producers are faced with the fact that if they don’t match the numbers that their competitors are quoting they will lose sales.
There is also a common sense problem. If you have a low SPF product which isn’t really protecting you, all you need to do is USE MORE! SPF10 is already blocking out over 90% of the light. You really don’t get much extra benefit from an ultra high SPF. But you do get exposed to higher levels of chemical UV screens as the formulators have to pump the formulations with ever higher levels to meet the high numbers their marketing colleagues are telling them are necessary.
So back to my search for the perfect sunscreen for my kids. I want a physical only sunscreen, and I am quite happy with an SPF of between 10 and 20. I looked on the shelves and studied the ingredient listings carefully. The SPF figures were all much higher than I wanted and I realised that to achieve this most of the formulations were combining both physical and chemical sunscreens. I could only find one product that met my spec of physical only. This was Boots’ own Sun E45 SPF20. Would I have bought it? No. I noticed that it was using a preservative that although fully approved and probably safe, I personally don’t like.
Here is the ingredient list:
Aqua, Zinc Oxide, Isopropyl Myristate, Titanium Dioxide, Isohexadecane, Butylene Glycol, Polyglyceryl-3 Oleate,Cetyl Dimethicone Copolyol, Sodium Chloride, Magnesium Sulfate, Phenoxyethanol, Aluminium Stearate, Alummina, Methylparaben, Lecithin, Isopropyl Palmitate, Propylparaben, 2-Bromo-2 Nitropropane-1,3-Diol
The use of methyparaben and propylparaben is a shame. I don’t like parabens as preservatives though I admit that they probably aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be. The last item on the list is usually called Bronopol. It was originally developed at Boots and I am suspicious of it.
Sun E45 is very whitening indeed. This is no doubt because they have put a lot of titanium dioxide in it. Surely in real life this is uncecessary.
So here is my challenge to my friends in the cosmetic industry. Can anyone come up with a physical only totally skin safe sunscreen which is cosmetically elegant?