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18th May 2021

Shedding light on sunscreen terms

Many people in the UK use the terms suncream, sunblock, suntan lotion and sun lotion interchangeably when talking about sunscreen. While some of these terms are just outdated, one is actually banned in some countries due to its misleading nature.

A brief history of sunscreen

The first evidence of photoprotection dates back to around 4,000 BC, when the ancient Egyptians used extracts of rice, jasmine and lupine to protect themselves from the sun, since lighter skin was considered to be more attractive.[1] However, the first chemical sunscreen wasn’t created until 1891. Shortly after that, researchers began to suspect that sunlight might be more harmful than first thought, with emerging evidence linking sun exposure to skin cancer.[1]
In 1922, German scientists Hausser and Vahle made the first measurements of the UV spectrum and its effects on the skin and realised that the lower energy wavelengths (UVA) seemed to produce the tanning effect, while high-energy UVB caused burning.[2] Following this discovery, they created the first commercial ‘suntan lotion’, which allowed beachgoers to tan without being burned.[1]
More recent research has shown that UVA radiation may be just as harmful as UVB when it comes to cancer-causing effects and is the main cause of premature photoageing (wrinkles, age spots, sagging etc.).[3]
Because of this, modern sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB and the sunscreen industry ditched the term ‘suntan lotion’ as it became clear that the so-called ‘healthy tan’ was a dangerous myth.

The sunblock misnomer

Some online articles insist that sunblock is the correct term to use for products containing mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,[4,5] as distinct from sunscreens which contain chemical filters. However, this advice is misleading and wrong.
Multiple regulators and health authorities around the world, including the Australian TGA,[6] US FDA[7] and the European Commission[8] have rejected or banned the term sunblock in product advertising because it implies 100% protection from the sun. Even the highest SPF, broad-spectrum products do not block all potentially harmful UV radiation, so whether your product contains mineral or chemical filters, or a combination of both, it should still be called a sunscreen.

What about suncream and sun lotion?

While these terms are more innocuous, and will probably always remain in common use, they may not be strictly correct. Creams and lotions are different–though not clearly defined and sometimes overlapping—formulation types. Lotions are generally thinner, lighter, more suited to use on the body and are usually oil-in-water type formulations. Creams tend to be a richer consistency, are more often designed for the face, and may be water-in-oil type formulations—though not always. Furthermore, the same UV filters could be used in both a cream and a lotion, with the only difference between formulations being their thickness.

 

Because these different terms open up the possibility of so much confusion, we here at SunSense will only ever use one term—sunscreen.

 

References

  1. Ma Y, Yoo J. History of sunscreen: An updated view. J Cosmet Dermatol 2021;20(4):1044–9.
  2. Hausser KW, Vahle W. Sonnenbrand und Sonnenbräunung. Wiss Veröff Siemens-Konzern 1927;6:101.
  3. Battie C, Jitsukawa S, Bernerd F, Del Bino S, Marionnet C, Verschoore M. New insights in photoaging, UVA induced damage and skin types. Exp Dermatol 2014;23:7–12.
  4. Sunscreen vs. Sunblock: What’s the Difference, and Which One Is Better? | Health.com [Internet]. [cited 2021 Apr 30];Available from: https://www.health.com/beauty/skincare/sunscreen-vs-sunblock
  5. Sunscreen Versus Sunblock: What’s the Difference? [Internet]. Healthline2019 [cited 2021 Apr 30];Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/sunscreen-vs-sunblock
  6. Australian Government Department of Health Therapeutic Goods Administration. Australian regulatory guidelines for sunscreens (ARGS) [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2019 Jul 26];Available from: https://www.tga.gov.au/publication/australian-regulatory-guidelines-sunscreens-args
  7. Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Questions and Answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. FDA [Internet] 2019 [cited 2021 Apr 30];Available from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/understanding-over-counter-medicines/questions-and-answers-fda-announces-new-requirements-over-counter-otc-sunscreen-products-marketed-us
  8. The Comission of the European Communities. Commission Recommendation of 22 September 2006 on the efficacy of sunscreen products and the claims made relating thereto. Off J Eur Union 2006;L 265/39(2006/647/EC):39–43.

 

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