Is your sun protection factor (SPF) squeaky clean?

Written by Hannah Cole

It might seem murky, but not all synthetics are as evil as they are perceived.

I still remember being told by my great-grandmother as a meek six-year-old to take care of my skin. Wear sunscreen, she preached. I didn’t listen, but I wish I had. My skin might glisten with a more youthful glow and bear fewer frown lines if I had paid attention. Shockingly, SPF has only become a regular part of my skin regime in the last year. Thank God we got there eventually.  

We know, we know, we know: we should wear SPF daily (particularly with Australasia’s harsh conditions). Which do we choose though? We consider the SPF, ingredients, coverage, and more recently, the ‘naturalness’. I am the embodiment of the shoulder shrug emoji.

I chatted to skincare expert and SPF mega-fan, Hannah English, to finally get to the bottom of the trend. To go clean, or not to: that is the question. 

Termed ‘clean‘ SPF, these offerings avoid chemicals and stick to mineral-only ingredients. Stemming from the holistic health and wellness discussion, Hannah notes that our contempt towards processed ingredients has now leaked into the beauty industry — “where it absolutely does not make sense.” 

The movement undoubtedly has some positives, yet fails to recognise the importance of science, synthetic chemistry and the subsequent developments that aid us daily. Hannah offers Aspirin as an example: willow bark was once a remedy for pain relief but had the side effect of stomach lining irritation. Enter synthetic chemistry, and we now have an irritation-free solution, without which many people would still suffer. It might seem murky, but not all synthetics are as evil as they are perceived. 

This brings us to sunscreen: a product that is admittedly (and unabashedly) full of chemicals. (To which Hannah remarks, “everything is a chemical. Even water”). It’s another instance of chemicals and science serving us for the better. 

Remember our discussion on beauty buzzwords? Anybody can slap on a ‘clean’ or ‘no nasties’ label and call it a day; they have become meaningless buzzwords to win over a few well-intending consumers. Traditional sunscreen undergoes rigorous and routine testing; the Australian governing bodies make sure of that. As Hannah notes, “Sunscreen ingredients are rigorously tested with the safety data submitted to regulatory before they’re allowed in a product that goes to market.” UV filters are given a bad wrap in the press, but with 33 approved filters here, they aren’t all problematic. 

I have a vested interest in the conversation — I am always hoping to save the trees or the ocean, and now ‘reef-safe’ has become the hot token. Products labelled so claim to contain ‘no nasties’ that will impact the current coral bleaching crisis. There is no denying this crisis is widespread, quickening in pace and horrifying, but sunscreen may be “unfairly demonised” here according to Hannah. “It’s a really nice feeling to think that by purchasing certain sunscreens, we can do our part to help the planet.” Then comes the but. These studies relied on giving coral an excessive dose of sunscreen, “And a massive overdose of anything is going to be a problem for most living things.” Put simply, it’s climate change that is the primary proponent of coral bleaching, not necessarily the meagre amount of sunscreen we apply. (Read more about this here).

“Sunscreen ingredients are rigorously tested with the safety data submitted to regulatory before they’re allowed in a product that goes to market.” — Hannah English, scientist.

I may not be able to save the planet with my sunscreen choice, but that’s not to say that some sunscreens on the cleaner end of the spectrum are without merit. I asked Hannah for her recommendations of those that actually do the job and fit into the mineral criteria:

  • Paula’s Choice RESIST SPF30 — “Silky and light, and full of skin-soothing and protecting antioxidants. Not ideal for deep skin tones, however.”
  • Ultra Violette Clean Screen SPF30 and Lean Screen SPF50 — “Both of which work for medium to deep skin tones. The dream.”

Now kids, wear your sunscreen and choose it wisely. One last gem of wisdom from Hannah: according to the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, we need to wear ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen for the face, or ½ teaspoon for face, neck and ears. Learn from the best and buy a set of teaspoons specifically for sunscreen measurement, and always buy the highest SPF you can — “because we’re probably not using enough.”.

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