Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Reader's Question: I've heard that there's an ingredient in European sunscreens that makes them more effective, but it's illegal in American sunscreens. What is it and why can't we use it?
Sue's Response: The main reason why European sunscreens differ from American ones is because most other countries (including Canada and many in Asia) classify the active ingredients in sunscreens as "cosmetics" and not "drugs."
This may sound like a matter of semantics, but labeling active ingredients as drugs means that they must earn FDA approval, which can take as long as 12 years. As a result, sunscreens available in Europe have to wait longer to be available stateside.
However, these restrictions are changing as American demand for better sun protection grows stronger. Over the past few years, more and more Americans have crossed the border into Canada in order to purchase European-manufactured sunscreens. In addition, these sunscreens can be purchased at a handful of high-end pharmacies and doctor's offices in the U.S., but the prices are usually exorbitant.
What makes these European sunscreens so great? The big ingredient that's causing all the clamor is a chemical called ecamsule, better known by its trade name, Mexoryl. First patented by L'Oreal in 1982, it was approved for use by the European Union in 1991. Some argue that the ingredient has shown the highest efficacy in blocking UVA rays. Others claim that Mexoryl is simply another broad-spectrum sunscreen, similar to Parsol 1789 (which is widely available in American products).
Either way, Mexoryl does boast an advantage in terms of its photostability rate. Essentially, all sunscreens degrade once they are applied. This is why we all need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day. Mexoryl degrades slower than Parsol 1789, allowing it to retain its protective ability and potency longer.
In the U.S., however, Mexoryl did not gain approval until last year and can be found only in LaRoche-Posay's Anthelios SX (www.anthelios.com) and Lancome UV Expert 20 (www.lancome-usa.com). Both products are pricey for sunscreens (about $30 for 3.4 ounces), as opposed to typical drugstore sunscreens that run from $10 to $15 per three to five ounces. While some doctors insist that this ingredient outperforms other sunscreens, others claim that you are just fine using (and reapplying) broad spectrum sun protection.
Another product that recently gained notice in the U.S. is Heliocare, an oral supplement that has been available in Europe for years (www.heliocare.com). Heliocare, derived from a Central American fern that treats both eczema and psoriasis, does not replace topical sunscreen use. However, studies show that using it alongside your regular sunscreens can help prevent long-term sun damage to your skin. Dr. Victor Neel, who serves as a director of dermatologic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains that the oral supplement can boost our body's defenses against the UV damage that gets past our sunscreens.
If you'd rather not splurge on your sunscreens, Neutrogena's line of sunscreens now feature a complex called Helioplex, which is earning strong reviews from dermatologists for its photostability. Avobenzone, the active ingredient, usually loses potency after about an hour; in Helioplex products, they remain stable for five. If you happen to take a trip to Canada and want to test out Mexoryl, L'Oreal sells a Canadian Mexoryl brand called Ombrelle, which has a similar price point to drugstore sunscreens.