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Are Your Lips (Properly) Sealed? Creating Effective SPF Lip Gear


by Mark Patterson

The unmistakable smell of coconut can bring back childhood memories of hot summer days and slathering on sunscreen before lying out on the patio. Back then, consumers just wanted to avoid a painful sunburn; but today, they are more aware of the severe health risks from overexposure to the sun.

Sun protection is a huge concern for consumers, and rightfully so. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. In 2007, 58,094 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). UV radiation is considered the primary cause of these skin cancers. There are a variety of ways to reduce exposure to UV rays such as avoiding the outdoors when the sun is at its peak, or covering up with a hat and long sleeves; but many people instead opt for sunscreen protection. 

Most consumers want to protect their lips, too, since overexposure to the sun can put lips at risk for skin cancer and because sun-burned lips can be especially painful. For this, an SPF lip balm with an acceptable flavor is needed. Lotions aren’t made to be near the mouth, so chemists create them with aroma in mind, but not flavor. You want SPF lip balm to taste OK, since some of it may get into the mouth.

The other reason to choose an SPF lip balm is that lips have special needs. The fine skin on the lips is extremely thin and contains very little melanin, which helps protect other parts of the skin from sun damage. Lips are unable to moisturize themselves as other areas of skin on the body can, and the penetrating oil and wax layer provided by a quality lip balm protect lips from sun damage. 

Lip SPF: The Tricky Part

Although lips need sun protection, formulating a lip balm with sunscreen can be challenging because you need to abide by FDA regulations, stay current on SPF testing and keep informed about ingredients.  Some factors to consider when formulating a balm are whether you want to provide UVA and UVB protection, whether the sunscreen will protect with a chemical versus a physical barrier and which moisturizer base to use.

The ABCs of UV

UV rays are categorized by wavelength and include UVA (long wave), UVB (medium wave) and UVC (short wave). Most skin scientists are concerned with UVA and UVB because most of the UVC rays are absorbed in the upper atmosphere and do not reach our skin. UV rays can damage collagen fibers and accelerate aging of the skin, destroy vitamin A, and have the potential to damage DNA directly or indirectly. UVA does not cause sunburn like UVB rays, but both can be harmful to the skin, potentially resulting in skin cancer. In order to make an SPF label claim, you are limited to the list of 17 FDA-approved active ingredients. When formulating an SPF lip balm, one of the most important considerations is choosing ingredients that result in both UVA and UVB coverage. 

Barriers: Are Nanoparticles a No-No?

Another choice to consider, especially when targeting natural products consumers, is whether you are going to use a chemical barrier or a physical barrier sunscreen ingredient. Most of the available active ingredient options are chemical sunscreens, which typically work by absorbing the UV rays. The two physical sunscreen options are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both gaining popularity in the LOHAS marketplace. The physical sunscreens protect against UV by deflecting or blocking the UV rays. They are generally considered to be more natural, but the debate gets complicated as you dig deeper. Many of the sunscreens claiming to be “natural" are using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that is micronized and/or coated. The reason the particles are micronized is to make them smaller and less visible, therefore less whitening. These smaller particles are called “nanoparticles" and some think they are less healthy. Others argue the nanoparticle concern is a non-issue because after the titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are in a powder form, are dispersed in a solution, like sunflower oil for example, the nano-sized molecules agglomerate to form larger molecules; but this may depend on the individual product.

A Lip Balm’s Special Sauce

Most people want their lip balm to be made from healing oils that absorb into the lips and offer a protective layer to seal in moisture and prevent moisture from being pulled into the air. If you are creating an SPF lip balm, you may need to sacrifice some of these qualities depending on the active ingredients you choose. Many sunscreen brands, especially in the natural products category, are moving to physical blocks. When formulating a lip balm with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide you may need to sacrifice some of the moisturizing qualities as well as the feel, especially as you increase the amount of SPF.

One of the important attributes in a lip balm is the feel. One of the challenges of creating the perfect balance is formulating a lip balm that goes on with a smooth glide that’s not too waxy or greasy. If you are dealing with restrictions, such as specific percentages of active sunscreen ingredients, it can get tricky. Zinc oxide is notorious for its chalky feel, especially in its natural state. Microfine particles and surface treatments can help significantly, but trying to achieve a higher SPF using 20- to 25-percent zinc oxide is likely to feel a little bit chalky no matter what you do. Ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are not absorbed into the skin like the synthetic actives, and this actually has a drying effect as the minerals pull moisture from the lips. That is one reason many lip balm manufacturers choose to use synthetic sun blocks that have less of a drying effect.

Some good choices for a moisturizing lip balm base include sunflower oil, safflower oil and coconut oil with an addition of a nice butter like cocoa butter. Jojoba oil is an emollient oil that can be used as a carrier oil or added to help with absorbency. When working with higher concentrations of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, it is important to pay special attention to the ratio of wax to oil. Since these ingredients can be drying and chalky feeling, be sure to bump up the oils and butters to allow for a smooth application, but you need to keep the wax content high enough that the product will hold its shape.

Mark Patterson is the CEO of Eco Lips, a natural lip care brand and contract manufacturer, located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Eco Lips now offsets 100-percent of its energy use with renewable resources. Patterson recently continued his mission to raise community awareness about environmental impact with a snowboard descent of a nearby landfill. He was joined in his adventure by several city officials and a television camera crew.

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