I’ve been thinking about sunscreen a lot lately. This started when my co-worker Cynthia wrote a feature on sunscreens and how they work – or, more appropriately, why they don’t work. She worked with a friend I referred her to who many of you know from the kbeauty community, cosmetic chemist Stephen Ko. As those of you who know him are already aware of, Stephen has a wealth of information to share that is not generally available to the public.
Then yesterday, in a conversation on a skincare-focused Facebook group I am a member of, the discussion of sunscreen came up again as related to hyperpigmentation problems. In addition to freckles, I have several large spots on my forehead that are clearly sun damage. I can cover them with foundation, but what I really want is for them to go away. After all, I wear sunscreen daily and reapply regularly, so why am I getting them in the first place?
Stephen kindly weighed in on the matter, teaching me something I did not know:
“Based on the placement of the hyperpigmentation (forehead, bridge of nose, cheeks…basically where people put highlighter) I would say this is likely from UVA exposure! This is where I got mine as well, until I switched to sunscreens with 3rd gen sunscreens with proper UVA sunscreen – which means ones that aren’t made in the USA. Even Mexico has way better sunscreens!”
So, first key (disturbing) info to take away: The majority of U.S. sunscreens are NOT protecting you from sun damage.
I’ve never enjoyed the thick, sticky feel of sunscreens in the U.S. which is why I switched to Japanese and Korean products. In them I found magical items like Biore’s UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence and Goodal’s Mild Essence Protect Essence. They feel nothing like sunscreen (more like Korean essences) so I fell in love with their texture and scent. But as I also learned thanks to Stephen’s knowledge of the science behind these products, those may not be protecting me either. From more of his comments:
“Asian sunscreens (imported from Asia) are a decent bet too, but honestly the PA system compresses the UVAPF into something that isn’t very useful. UVAPF 50 and UVAPF 20 for example both get a rating of PA++++.”
The PA system, by the way, is how the Japanese convert a standard UVA score from a PPD test into their version of UVA measurement for sunscreens. As Stephen has kindly indicated above, it is not an accurate system. In the U.S. we’ve been educated to look for SPF numbers as proof of protection. For instance, prior to this conversation I always purchased SPF 50 or higher because I am fair. The higher the SPF, the more protection I get, right? Not exactly. Many sunscreens protect your skin from UVA, which are the sun’s shortwave ultraviolet waves. However, the Skin Cancer Foundation announced in 2013 that UVB, the sun’s longwave ultraviolet waves, was starting to become a source of concern in regards to sun damage as well.
To give a little bit more info on this so you understand why exactly UVA is a problem: It plays a key role in the development of skin cancer. All this information may seem like a hassle to deal with, but if you care about your health and life, it’s worth it to learn about it so you can get a sunscreen that is truly protecting your skin.
Now (unfortunately) it gets more complicated. In order to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB, you may think you want to look for products that advertise “broad spectrum” or “multi spectrum” protection. These also should contain specific UVB screening ingredients such as stabilized a avobenzone, ecamsule (a.k.a. MexorylTM), oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. However, one issue with this is that these two terms do not do much to explain how much protection one is getting from UVA, so for instance it is possible to use a 100 SPF product that is labeled broad spectrum but has a small amount of UVA protection, so you can still burn or end up with hyperpigmentation.
In case you’re indignant at this point (and I was), the reason for this issue in the U.S. is that the FDA has not published a Final Rule for SPF labeling or UVA protection labeling. That’s the reason why there’s some haziness. However, in Europe things differ. The European Cosmetics Association (Colipa) has since published a Guideline for in vitro measurements of the UVAPF/SPF and critical wavelength. In short, when you purchase a European sunscreen you are able to get a clear idea of the protection from both UVA and UVB exposure, clearly indicated on the label!
So at this point you’re probably thinking, cool, I’m going to import all my sunscreen from Europe from now on (or, you’re frustrated and you’ve already hurled your laptop across the room). That’s a bit tricky to do, as they’re sort of tough to find. Stephen recommended eChemist as a good retailer to purchase from, and a few of the brands he recommended include Ombrelle Complete Kids, Bioderma, La Roche Posay, and Nivea and Garnier from Europe. I’ve ordered the La Roche Posay to try out, thanks to Stephen’s kind information. Here’s to hoping that if I am using a product that filters both UVA/UVB adequately, these sunspots will fade and I can stop wasting my money on products that are not doing their job.
Just a reminder that I am NOT A SCIENTIST and that I am learning all this from someone else. It’s all a learning process, but here’s to hoping my skin is free from sun damage in the near future!