How clean is your sunscreen? If it contains the chemicals oxybenzone (BP-3) and octinoxate, the answer is “not very”.

The legislature of the state of Hawaii has just passed a bill that will ban sunscreen products containing these two ingredients in 2021. Both are commonly used in non-mineral sunscreens and both have been linked to coral bleaching in Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands.

Connecting the dots: sunscreen chemicals and coral bleaching

Researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University were the first to connect sunscreen chemicals with coral bleaching, publishing their findings in October 2015. They found that oxybenzone – a common ingredient in sunscreen – caused DNA damage, endocrine disruption, and “gross morphological deformities” in coral that led it to close up and die.

Researchers found oxybenzone levels in some ocean locations were over 12 times higher than the concentration necessary to damage coral. Much of that oxybenzone is believed to come from sunscreen that sloughs off the bodies of swimmers after contact with ocean water.

Widely used sunscreen ingredients

How common are these ingredients? According to the Environmental Working Group, oxybenzone was added to nearly 65% of the non-mineral sunscreens accessed in the organization’s 2017 Guide to Sunscreens. While no comparable figures are available for octinoxate, the endocrine-disrupting ingredient is believed to be the most widely used UVB-blocking agent in the skincare industry.

Both ingredients have a global footprint. According to one estimate reported by The New Daily in Australia, a ban on the use of oxybenzone and octinoxate would remove almost 40% of all sunscreens currently on the market in Australia.

Hawaii’s ban only affects certain chemical sunscreens; mineral sunscreens that use ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide to physically block the sun’s rays are not subject to the ban.

Personal care product ingredients are a mystery to most consumers. One practically needs a degree in chemical engineering to decipher an ingredient label for a sunscreen or skincare product. In the short term, Hawaii’s ban may encourage a closer look at product labels.

Longer-term, Hawaii’s ban could be just the catalyst that the personal care industry needs to pursue clean label initiatives with the same vigour as food and beverage makers.

Consumer awareness of clean label is growing

Clean label is no longer a foreign concept to consumers. When asked what the term ‘clean label’ meant to them as part of GlobalData’s Q4 2015 consumer survey, 45% of Americans responded that they did not know what the term meant. That number shrank to just 31% of Americans in GlobalData’s Q1 2017 consumer survey.

Globally, the clean label concept is coalescing around the removal of artificial ingredients and the use of natural or organic product claims. A lack of pesticides, chemicals or toxins is third in the pecking order. But what chemicals and toxins should we be worried about?

Consumer awareness of specific ingredients is poor, at best, and claims built around the absence of offending ingredients often fail to connect. According to GlobalData’s Q2 2015 global consumer survey, 56% of consumers globally said they were unfamiliar with the claim ‘triclosan-free’ for beauty or cleaning products. 47% said the same about the claim ‘paraben-free’. Single ingredient claims do not seem to be setting the world on fire.

Third party certification of clean label claims

If calling out the absence of ‘bad for you’ ingredients isn’t connecting, would third-party certification that a product is ‘clean’ improve the odds of success? The answer is not clear, but this approach is beginning to make inroads into personal care.

In 2016, New York-based Made Safe launched a certification system that screens personal care and household products for known toxic chemicals. Products that make the cut can use a ‘Made Safe’ seal on product packaging that ensures a product is made with safe ingredients.

Made Safe-certified products must pass ingredient screening for behavioural toxins, carcinogens, developmental toxins, endocrine disruptors, fire retardants, heavy metals, neurotoxins, high-risk pesticides, reproductive toxins, toxic solvents, and harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

There is no realistic way for a consumer to keep on top of the latest developments pertaining to specific chemicals like these. And with an estimated 80,000 chemicals currently in use in the US alone, it is probably only a matter of time before scientists discover another unintended negative health consequence for a specific ingredient or substance.

With this threat looming, maybe it is time for personal care product makers up their clean label game. Ignoring the lessons of Hawaii’s sunscreen ban could burn brands that fail to take the hint.

For more insight and data, visit the GlobalData Report Store – Verdict Cosmetics is part of GlobalData Plc.