Is Chemical Sunscreen About to Go the Way of Microbeads?

Your SPF options might be in for a major change.
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Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ah, the halcyon days of 2015 — marriage equality finally became the law of the land, athleisure was the freshest trend around and the biggest story in the beauty world came when plastic microbeads got their marching orders. Long maligned for their contribution to the build-up of non-biodegradable plastic in the world's oceans and waterways, microbeads went the way of the dodo courtesy of a bill signed by President Obama and the attendant public outcry over the discovery that we'd been getting our exfoliation on at the expense of Captain Planet, but now it seems that they may have just been the front-runners in eco-conscious beauty bans. 

Last week, Hawaii passed legislation that would ban the use of two common chemical sunscreen ingredients in all sunblocks sold in the state beginning in 2021. The law specifically targets octinoxate and oxybenzone, UV blockers which have been linked with the phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a form of coral death that has plagued coral reefs worldwide in recent decades. With an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen being sloughed off into the world's oceans yearly, particularly in popular reef-swimming areas like, you guessed it, Hawaii, it's hardly a surprise that the state is the first to make a dramatic declaration against these chemicals. 

If you've ever read through the ingredients list on the back of a sunscreen bottle, odds are, you're familiar with the names octinoxate and oxybenzone. Often teamed with other chemical blockers like avobenzone, octocrylene and homosalate, these ingredients provide added UVA protection, making them a popular choice for broad-spectrum formulations. UVA protection is essential, dermatologist Dr. Annie Chiu explains, because "UVA contributes to photoaging and increased skin cancer rates." In other words, all of the reasons your mom (and Frank Ocean's) has always hassled you to wear sunscreen. 

This UVA boost is where some skin-care experts, however oceanographically minded they may be, argue that there could be cause for concern with the new ban. While there are other ingredients on the market that offer UVA protection — Chiu notes that common physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, none of which are covered by the new ban, cover UVA exposure — the risk for casual SPF users conflating these particular chemical blockers with all chemical sunscreens is high. 

"My concern," Chiu explains, "is that there will be confusion for consumers as [octinoxate and oxybenzone are] not harmful from a personal health standpoint." She adds, "There are very few ingredients in sunscreen that give broad UVA and UVB coverage. These ingredients expand coverage in the UVA spectrum, and it could be difficult for consumers to get a true broad spectrum sunscreen since SPF is what the consumer focuses on, but that only measures UVB protection."

From an industry standpoint, the big question is whether, like the microbead pushback, this ban has the potential to shake up the entire sunscreen category. As a large market for US sunscreen sales, the Hawaiian ban would force big brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic to either create new octinoxate- and oxybenzone-free lines to sell in the state or to fully reformulate their product lines to comply. Either option is bound to be expensive and time consuming, especially given that sunscreen formulas have to pass rigorous safety and effectiveness tests before they're allowed to hit US shelves. 

But if Hawaii's move sparks a widespread public turn against octinoxate and oxybenzone, or if other coastal states decide to follow in their footsteps, that extra work could prove to be a make-it or break-it moment for increasingly eco-conscious American beauty buyers

The ban also raises the persistent question of when the FDA will finally approve new sun protectants. Unlike most personal care products, sunscreens are the purview of the FDA, which has historically been hesitant to approve new sun protectant ingredients. In fact, no new UVA or UVB protectants have been approved for use by the FDA in nearly 20 years. 

The organization has come under fire in recent years for dragging its feet as worries about endocrine disruption and as the infusion of European and Korean beauty brands have brought newer, more photostable and cosmetically appealing sunscreen ingredients to the attention of the American public. Even 2014's bipartisan Sunscreen Innovation Act, which mandated that the FDA reduce the backlog of applications to approve new UV blockers, was met with resounding failure — the FDA responded by hastening their rejection of all eight sunscreen ingredients up for approval. 

With new pressure on sunscreen manufacturers to switch up the SPF game, though, some hope that the big names (and lobbying dollars) may be able to make a dent where public opinion has failed, but not everyone is getting their hopes up. "Dermatologists have been eagerly waiting for approval on these more photostable SPF ingredients," says Chiu. "It is hard to speculate whether something like this would really have any effect on the FDA approval process for other unrelated ingredients, unfortunately."

Whether the Hawaiian ban is destined for major industry disruption or another baby step in the direction of more eco-friendly beauty may be all up to Governor David Ige, who still has to give the final thumbs-up before the law can take effect. Pass or fail, though, there's no doubt that the ban has started a serious conversation about sunscreen ingredients, and that's good news for healthy skin everywhere. 

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