Is your sunscreen safe? Ingredient in local lotions 'could be cancerous'

A snap survey found some sunscreens contain ingredients linked to the death of fish and coral reefs - and that may also be harmful to our health

02 December 2018 - 00:02 By ALEX PATRICK
Some countries are banning sunscreens that harm fish, coral reefs and perhaps humans, too, but in SA controversial ingredients are still found.
Some countries are banning sunscreens that harm fish, coral reefs and perhaps humans, too, but in SA controversial ingredients are still found.
Image: 123RF/Domenicogelermo

Always wear sunscreen. But before you do, make sure to check what's in it.

A snap survey of South African store shelves found many products containing controversial ingredients that are killing fish and coral reefs - and may also be harmful to our health.

Hawaii last month banned two ultraviolet (UV) filters, oxybenzone and octinoxate, effective from January 2021, because they are damaging the island's fragile coral reefs, according to reports.

The Pacific Island of Palau followed suit, announcing that from 2020, "reef-toxic" sunscreens would be confiscated from tourists who carry them into the country, and merchants selling the banned products will be fined up to $1,000 (R13,700).

Hong Kong is also considering banning oxybenzone and octinoxate, as well as a third common ingredient, octocrylene, after finding these chemicals caused abnormalities and higher mortality in fish embryos.

Researchers fear the contaminants could pass along the food chain to humans and "the long-term impact on human fertility cannot be neglected", according to a Hong Kong researcher.

In SA, the regulations are hazy.

The health department, which has ultimate authority, did not respond to questions from the Sunday Times.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association of SA (CTFA) and the Society of Cosmetic Chemists SA (Coschem) said SA followed EU regulations, which limit oxybenzone to 6% and octinoxate and octocrylene to 10% in sunscreen products.

However, Coschem said products containing oxybenzone had to carry a cautionary label, the CTFA said the regulations were "unclear" and it was waiting for the department to provide clarity. The CTFA, which advises on ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries, could also not say how many sunscreen manufacturers had been fined in the past, or what the fines would amount to.

Cancer Association of SA (CANSA) health specialist Professor Michael Herbst said oxybenzone was a possible human carcinogen and dangerous if used in products at more than 6%. The EU has said it is a threat to human health and has called for it to be replaced with a safer ingredient.

CANSA had given manufacturers until "summer 2018/2019" to stop using oxybenzone in their products if they want to carry the organisation's logo, he said, but warned that old stock may still be on the shelf.

Currently, CANSA will only endorse products that keep oxybenzone to 6% or less.

In the long run [oxybenzone] could be cancerous. It mimics oestrogen, it is a hormone disruptor
Professor Michael Herbst, CANSA health specialist 

"In the long run [oxybenzone] could be cancerous. It mimics oestrogen, it is a hormone disruptor," he said.

"In young girls it can cause precocious sexual development. For young boys it can cause hormone problems. In pregnant women it can enter the bloodstream where it can affect the foetus.

"It can become cancerous and the cancers would be hormonal cancers such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer and prostate cancer."

The snap survey of eight top-selling sun lotions found that all of them contained at least one of the three ingredients. Only two brands had a caution label. None listed how much of the controversial ingredients were in the product.

Some manufacturers told the Sunday Times this was not disclosed because it was "proprietary and confidential".

But all manufacturers insisted their products were safe to use and that they followed regulations.

CANSA only endorses products that keep oxybenzone at six percent or less
CANSA only endorses products that keep oxybenzone at six percent or less
Image: Nolo Moima

CTFA executive director Adelia Pimentel said SA had a "self-regulated approach", based on the EU regulatory framework, in which the onus was on companies to ensure they followed the law.

But she said there were no clear guidelines on whether oxybenzone needed a warning label in SA.

"We are waiting on promulgation [of regulations] to be clear on the way forward on warnings on labels," she said.

Coschem member Marlize Lategan said oxybenzone could only be used at 6% "but a warning must be on the label to warn the consumer that product contains it".

"EHMC [octinoxate] is still allowed at a maximum of 10%, but we are already looking at bringing down the percentage."

She admitted that "policing is a problem, the cost and manpower is a lot", but warned that "any legislation that limits options for effective sun protection is cause for concern".

Lategan said consumers could use natural ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which were more effective for UV protection and were allowed at 25%.

The CTFA regulates cosmetics and toiletries and has the biggest voting rights on standards. Coschem implements the standards and tests for UV A and UV B.

Melanoma Society SA president Dagmar Whitaker said: "There is concern out there but one has to be practica l... fears about potential harmful ingredients in sunscreens should not in any way interfere with sun-wise behaviour and the regular use of sunscreens."



Deona Janneke, consumer relations manager for Inco Brands, which makes Tropitone and Everysun, said the company had not used octocrylene or oxybenzone in its products since 2016, but that some old stock might still be on shelves.

However, even this old stock is "safe for use in the cosmetic products as per Colipa [the European Cosmetic and Perfumery Association] and European regulations".

"All Everysun products were reformulated and introduced to the market in the second quarter of 2017. Our products are CANSA-approved and endorsed by a dermatologist. Since the reformulation of the product it no longer contains OC [octocrylene] or BP-3 [oxybenzone]," she said.


Kerstin Bird, marketing director for Beiersdorf, makers of Nivea, said: "Nivea Sun products do include octocrylene, as this ingredient is considered safe for adults and children when applied under normal and reasonably foreseeable conditions of use.

"Octocrylene generally shows a low rate of adverse skin reactions, which should also be weighted to the benefit of sunscreens to prevent UV-induced skin reactions, including the prevention of skin cancer."


Clicks spokesperson Susann Caminada said the chain's SunProtect brand was endorsed by CANSA and followed strict safety testing protocols.

"All SunProtect stock that has been manufactured since 2017 is BP-3 [oxybenzone] free. We are currently phasing this in, and have both BP-3- containing and BP-3-free stock on the shelf. Eighty percent of Clicks SunProtect [stock] is BP-3-free and the remaining 20% is formulated within safe limits and is clearly marked with the warning 'Contains BP-3'," she said.

SunProtect products contained between 3.85% and 10% of octocrylene and octinoxate, depending on the SPF (sun protection factor), she said.


Dis-Chem investor relations manager Leandri van Jaarsveld said that, following consultations with CANSA, it had been decided to remove oxybenzone and octinoxate from Dis-Chem suncare formulations.

"This took place in 2016, although there may still be old packaging in circulation. The new guidelines drawn up by the CTFA [Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of SA] have proposed lowering the allowed dosage of BP-3 from 10% to 6%. This has not yet been promulgated by the department of health. All the relevant documentation including formulation and raw material details for the new formulations have been submitted to and approved by CANSA."

She said octocrylene was in the formulation "and is allowed for use in sunscreen products at levels considered safe by the CTFA".

"Dis-Chem products are formulated with strict adherence to the regulatory guidelines. UV filters are only used within allowable limits ... they are considered safe for the environment and consumer use."


Techniblock said: "We are busy with our annual review, working closely with our raw material and ingredient suppliers, BASF being one, together with other related parties."


Adcock Ingram corporate communications manager Kavitha Kalicharan said the company acquired the Island Tribe brand in March last year and was "compliant with CANSA's directive, and all sunscreen products manufactured from March 2017 onwards are oxybenzone-free".

She said octocrylene and octinoxate were still used in the products, but in quantities "below the regulated percentages".

"The Island Tribe SPF 50 gel is an exception as Adcock Ingram elected to remove [octinoxate] from the formulation in order to make the product 'reef safe' when it was reformulated in March 2017."


Manufacturer did not respond to questions.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.