There are 17 ingredients approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for use in sunscreen/sunblock products in the United States. Europe by comparison, has 27 approved ingredients. All of these ingredients serve a unique purpose and work by either absorbing or reflecting the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation, preventing it from reaching the deeper layers of the skin. These ingredients are combined to provide broad-spectrum protection from UVB, UVA and short-wave UVA radiation. Generally speaking, sunscreens have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of two and higher, while sunblock’s have a “physical” sunscreen ingredient and an SPF of 12 or higher. Self-Tanning products typically do not have sunscreens in them.
A “physical” sunscreen sits on the surface of the skin and forms a protective barrier. These ingredients do not have the ability to be absorbed by the body, although dermatologists have argued that if one has a skin condition such as eczema, there is a possibility for absorption. The radiation and light from the sun is either absorbed into the ingredient or reflected away from the skin. A “chemical” sunscreen absorbs sunlight to prevent sun damage but is also absorbed into your skin. Many people experience allergic reactions and burning eyes with a chemical sunscreen.
Products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide protect against UVA and UVB radiation. However, zinc oxide blocks more of the sun’s harmful rays than titanium dioxide, and is generally the preferred ingredient among manufacturers. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has only given these two ingredients the green light for use in sunscreens.
Zinc oxide protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays and provides more UVA protection than titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide does not protect the skin from the “long” UVA rays which cause aging and sun damage; however it is non-irritating, non-comedogenic, and allows the skin tone to show through the product after it is applied. The “chemical” ingredients approved by the FDA that block UVA and UVB rays include:
- Aminobenzoic acid: this once popular sunscreen ingredient is a blocker of UVB rays and also known as para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and vitamin Bx. Although it is a naturally occurring ingredient, it is not a true vitamin, and many people are sensitive or allergic to this ingredient. The “PABA-FREE” marketing claim that is common with sunscreens is directed to this ingredient, which has now become irrelevant as very few sunscreens contain it.
- Avobenzone (Parasol 1789): this oil-soluble ingredient has the ability to absorb UV light over a wider range of wavelengths than many organic sunscreen agents. It is commonly used in broad spectrum sunscreens.
- Cinoaxate, Dioxybenzone, Homosalate, Meradimate and Sulisobenzone: These organic compounds absorb both UVA and UVB rays. They are not commonly used.
- Ecamsule: This ingredient is patented by L’Oreal and will only be seen in sunscreens produced by them. Ecamsule filters out UVA rays. This ingredient is not approved by the FDA for general use, but is approved by them for use in L’Oreal products.
- Ensulizole: This is a UVB protecting ingredient that provides very little UVA protection. For increased UVA protection it must be paired with avobenzone, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. This ingredient is water soluble, enabling it to feel light on the skin, and is primarily used in products that have a non-greasy finish.
- Octocrylene: This organic compound is an oily liquid and colorless. It absorbs UVB and shortwave UVA rays, while protecting the skin from direct DNA damage. This ingredient can penetrate the skin and act as a photosensitizer, resulting in increased production of free radicals.
- Octinozate: with a low potential to sensitize skin and rarely acting as a photo-allergen, this ingredient is the most widely used in sunscreen products and filters UVB rays.
- Octisalate: As a penetration enhancer, this ingredient can potentially increase the amount of other ingredients that pass through the skin. It is a weak UVB absorber and cannot be used alone.
- Oxybenzone: This ingredient is used in conjunction with other sunscreens as its sun protection powers are very weak. It is considered a photo carcinogen, and through studies, reportedly increases the production of harmful free radicals, it has also been linked to contact eczema.
- Padimate O: a big part of the sunscreen controversy belongs to this ingredient. While it absorbs UV rays and prevents direct DNA damage by UVB rays, it can react with DNA to produce indirect DNA damage. It is suggested that this ingredient is photo carcinogenic, but not proven. This is a derivative of PABA but is a safer version of it.
- Trolamine Salicylate: you will find this ingredient in sunscreens, analgesic creams and various cosmetics. It absorbs UVB rays.
Moving on from sunscreens, for clients that are opting to stay out of the sun and tanning beds, either “going with their own glow” or using self-tanning products has become accepted use. While the deepest layer of the skin, the basal layer is affected by the sun, the outermost layer, or the horny layer is affected by self-tanning products. Like sunscreens these products come in many forms; professionally applied solutions, spray mists, lotions, crèmes and gels; but unlike sunscreens they do not provide any sun protection. Self-tanning products provide a semi-permanent tan, that lasts anywhere from three to 10 days.
The main active ingredient that is in all self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). This ingredient is derived from a sugar beet, and is available as an eco-certified organic ingredient. The skin browning effect is non-toxic, and the ingredient reacts chemically with amino acids in the skin. Amino acids can react differently producing different tones of color from yellow to brown. They are similar in color to melanin, which is the natural substance in the basal layer of the skin which turns brown from UV exposure.
Levels of DHA differ greatly in various products. Tan extending lotions and gradual self-tanners often have a level of two to three percent of this ingredient. Self-tanners usually range from a four to six percent active ingredient level, and professional applications and tanning mists from an eight to 14 percent level of DHA. In recent years, manufacturers of professional spray tanning solutions have increased DHA levels above 15 percent and as much as 22 percent to make the tan appear more rapidly. The European Commission for Health and Consumers recently reviewed all of the studies done throughout the world over a span of 50 years on this ingredient. They deemed DHA safe for inhalation in concentrations less than 10 percent, which is far below the common level for rapid developing tanning products.
The second active ingredient found in self-tanning products is generally considered “optional”, but is known to extend the life of a faux tan and produce a color that is truer to your skin tone. Erythrulose, derived from a raspberry, is considered an expensive ingredient for formulations. It is not currently approved by the FDA for a self-tanning agent. This ingredient must be combined with DHA and is usually found in concentrations of up to three percent.
The main complaint about the self-tanning process is directed towards the smell that is produced when DHA reacts with the skin. Some companies choose to mask the products with heavy fragrances, but more recently manufacturers are using an ingredient called Ordenone® which is very low in skin toxicity and essential oils for fragrance.
The second most popular complaint about these products is the fact that the skin can turn orange. This always has to do with over-application of the products. As a general rule, those with fair skin must use products with a lower concentration of DHA, or use less of the product that they are applying. Over-application of this ingredient can lead to skin with an orange tint. It can be very hard to remove the tan if this happens, so a general rule on self-tanners … less is more!
On another note, it has been found that for the 24 hours after a self-tanner with a level of over five percent is applied to the skin, it is susceptible to free-radical damage with sun exposure. It is important to wear a sunscreen if you will be in the sun.
Tanning pills, one of the most controversial self-tanning applications contain an ingredient called tyrosine and claim that they stimulate and increase melanin, and in turn accelerate the self tanning process. These pills are used in conjunction with UV exposure. There is no scientific data to support this.
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