The next generation of sunscreen

The University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program has brought together a team of researchers to tackle a growing health crisis resulting from a current batch of poor performing sunscreen.

The project team are developing a “new generation” sunscreen that outperforms what is currently available, and is specifically designed to combat the extreme UV levels in Australia.

Team leader, Associate Professor Konstantin Konstantinov, said “the Australian population is the most at risk to develop skin cancer due to some of the highest UV radiation levels in the world”.

“Males in Australia are 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer than males in Europe, while females are 10 times more likely,” he said.

The growing numbers are not helped by the inefficiencies within existing sunscreen products, identified in a 2008 study.

“Sunscreens contain both organic and inorganic substances to protect against harmful UV light, however, it was discovered that some inorganic filters can cause additional skin damage,” Professor Konstantinov said.

As a result of those findings Australian Cancer Council removed inorganic UV filters from most of their sunscreen products, “even though the inorganic filters provide greater and longer lasting coverage compared to the organic ones”, said Professor Konstantinov.

“The sunscreens based on organic filters only do not last on the skin as long and people are more likely to have an allergic response to these filters,” he said.

The team hope to solve this global issue by also developing testing methods for evaluation of safe UV radiation exposures, to ensure correct labelling on broad-spectrum products.

The testing standards for SPF is currently based on the reddening of skin under UV-B light only, ignoring the UV-A light.

Professor Konstantinov said UV-A is just as dangerous as UV-B because it penetrates further, beneath the skin, and is able to cause cellular damage.

“Broad spectrum protection is, therefore, crucial in a sunscreen,” he said.

“Under the current testing and labelling a sunscreen product can have a SPF of 30 for UV-B without protecting from UV-A, which gives a false sense of security.”

Sunscreen is often the first line of defence against UV light, however, team member Professor Michael Lerch said consumers have justifiable concerns that have “led to a decline in consumer confidence”.

 “Consumers are rightly concerned that the label might say SPF 50+, but it measures 30,” said Professor Lerch.

 “If there is a mistrust in the product and people stop using sunscreen, this could result in more cases of melanomas.”

The project will culminate with commercialisation strategies to launch the new sunscreen on the market.