Confidence in sunscreen safety shaky as negative headlines rekindle health and environment worries - Experts
Negative publicity began in earnest last December and centred on Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sunscreen.
The product, which was very popular online, became the target of beauty consumers everywhere when it was revealed that the product was mislabelled as an SPF 19 — less than half of the claimed SPF 50+.
The downfall of such a popular and well-loved sunscreen shook consumer confidence in sunscreen.
“Consumers put their trust in the brands that give their trust to manufacturers and the labs doing testing. If those at the very top aren’t doing their due diligence, then what can you do?' said Cheryl Yong, founder of Peau Peau, an online beauty retailer that used to carry the aforementioned sunscreen.
Yong, who prides herself in personally checking the ingredient lists of every single product Peau Peau carries, said that the whole Purito affair has caused her to be even more wary of products she takes on, especially sunscreen.
At the moment, Peau Peau is only retailing one sunscreen, a physical formula that protects the skin from sun rays with zinc oxide.
“I’m definitely more aware now and try to talk to brands about where their sunscreens are formulated and where they have tested their sunscreens. There are also ingredients I favour, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are proven ingredients that work,” she said.
The dreaded C-word
As the Purito scandal died down, sunscreen came under scrutiny again in May when independent laboratory Valisure released a report warning that it found benzene, a carcinogen, in sun care products.
Then in July, multinational Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled five of its Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreen sprays due to the presence of benzene.
While J&J stated that this “would not be expected to cause adverse health consequences”, it still triggered a fresh debate on concerns about the health effects of sunscreen.
Dr Alain Khaiat, president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association of Singapore (CTFAS) was confident that the ingredient safety of the recalled products was not compromised.
“Definitely, it was not one of the ingredients added to the formula that I can assure you. There's also no way it can be an impurity in one of the raw materials.”
Khaiat, who has decades of experience in the cosmetics industry with Revlon, Johnson & Johnson and Yves Rocher, speculated that the benzene could have come from impurities in the gas in the aerosol cans, which to his knowledge, cosmetic companies do not manufacture.
“That’s my first guess, but until findings are published, it will be left as a hypothesis.”
The effect on health is not the only on-going debate about sunscreen. In recent years, consumers have been questioning the environmental impacts of sunscreen.
In 2018, for example, Hawaii passed a ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate for fear they could be damaging its coral reefs.
Similar bans were introduced by the Pacific island of Palau and most recently Thailand.
In August, the Thai government banned four ingredients commonly found in sunscreens: oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor or butylparaben.
However, science has yet to find significant proof that these sunscreen ingredients are responsible for coral damage.
“I'm personally against claiming things like that because we don't have scientific data showing that a particular sunscreen is completely safe. Scientifically there is no significant data showing that one particular sunscreen could be responsible for coral death,” said Khaiat.
He added that the damage is more likely linked to environmental pollution from things like water treatment plants, and global warming because corals are sensitive to temperature.
“In fact, the data published on the concentration of sunscreens in the seawater at very popular beaches are very, very low and it doesn't look like it could be responsible for the problem.”
With so many negative headlines and social media posts surrounding sunscreen, more effort needs to be placed on debunking some of the misconceptions.
“We have to remind people that every ingredient goes through scientific review for its safety; every product placed on the market must have its safety reviewed by a qualified person,” said Khaiat.
While it may sound simple, this task is made even more difficult by cosmetic companies that continue to play to consumer insecurities to sell their products.
“It's very difficult because unfortunately, consumer fears have been preyed on by a lot of cosmetic companies to push their product. It’s very difficult to tell these companies that there’s a boomerang effect.”
On the other hand, Yong said that she was in favour of having more responsibility placed on retailers to encourage them to do more thorough scientific research on the products they take on.
“Maybe we can consider regulating retailers. These are the guys that are closest to the consumers and people trust them to provide them with quality products that are safe. Retailers should take it upon themselves to question the brands about their certifications, their processes – honestly, I’m not sure many do that.”
She concluded: “By having a regulatory system, you phase out all the small guys who don't have the constitution for this, who don't have the responsibility to consumers. And you leave the guys who actually do care about providing the best for consumers standing.”