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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Sustainability Concerns Turning the Tide on Sunscreens

Through CVS’ elimination of coral-damaging compounds and research pointing to cashew shells as a non-toxic alternative, tomorrow’s sunscreens could end up protecting more than our skin.

CVS Health removing coral-damaging compounds from over 50 own-brand sunscreens

Image credit: CVS

Allure recently reported that CVS Health will be preceding upcoming bans on
sunscreens that contain UV-blocking agents oxybenzone and octinoxate — ingredients believed to be harmful to coral reefs — by removing the chemicals from dozens of its store-brand sunscreens.

The pharmacy chain said in a statement: "By the end of 2020, CVS Health Store Brand sunscreens under SPF 50 will no longer contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which comes ahead of the regulatory scheduled requirements in Hawaii and Florida to eliminate these ingredients, being put in place to minimize impact on marine ecosystems." While a bill proposing a statewide ban of the chemicals did not pass in Florida, the city of Key West approved a local ban that will go into effect on January 1, 2021, the same day that Hawaii's ban begins.

When asked what precipitated the shift away from the contentious ingredients, Eileen Howard Boone, CVS’ SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility & Philanthropy, told Sustainable Brands: “The decision to remove oxybenzone and octinoxate is part of the latest advancement in CVS’ 2017 commitment to remove particular chemicals from the CVS Health Store Brand beauty and personal care items (including parabens, phthalates and the most prevalent formaldehyde-releasing preservatives). While this does come ahead of pending legislation, CVS is highly attuned to the evolving needs of our customers, and their desire for products that may be more sustainable while still being efficacious. We wanted to ensure our customers have access to a wider range of products that deliver quality and value, while also meeting those particular lifestyle preferences.

“Customer feedback — as well as our engagement with industry experts and key advocacy groups — have really driven this move, which we see as a natural step in the evolution of our comprehensive approach to chemical safety.”Eileen Howard Boone

Howard Boone went on to clarify that sunscreens with SPFs of 50+ still require some form of oxybenzone and octinoxate, in order to be the most effective for customers who require that strength of protection. CVS Health will continue to carry SPF 50+ sunscreens outside of Hawaii and Florida, but have removed them from shelves in those markets. She also said CVS will continue to carry other sunscreen brands containing the banned ingredients, in order to ensure a variety for customers.

Chemists turning cashew shells into sustainable sunscreen

Image credit: University of the Witwatersrand

Meanwhile, speaking of better alternatives to environmentally damaging sunscreen ingredients, a team of international scientists has found a win-win way of producing potential sunscreens — by using cashew shells, a waste material.

The team of chemists from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg — with the help of colleagues from universities in Germany, Malawi and Tanzania — are developing techniques to produce useful compounds from wood and other fast-growing, non-edible plant waste, through a chemical process named xylochemistry (wood chemistry). By using cashew nut shells, the team has produced new aromatic compounds that show good UVA and UVB absorbance, which may be applied to protect humans and livestock, as well as polymers or coatings, from harmful sun rays. The research has just been published as the cover article of the European Journal of Organic Chemistry.

UV rays are damaging to most materials, with its effects leading to the discoloration of dyes and pigments, weathering, yellowing of plastics, loss of gloss and mechanical properties, while it can lead to sunburn, premature aging and even the development of potentially lethal melanomas in both humans and animals.

To mitigate UV damage, both organic and inorganic compounds are used as UV filters. Ideal organic UV filters display a high UV absorption of UVA rays (in the region ranging from 315-400 nm) and UVB rays (280-315 nm). One important family of UV absorber molecules are derived from aromatic compounds known as phenols, which contain a hydrogen-bonded hydroxyl group that plays an important role in the dissipation of the absorbed energy.

For example, the common yet contentious UV absorbers, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have also been added to plastics to limit UV degradation. Apart from their petrochemical origin, a major drawback of these conventional UV-protection agents is their negative effect on aquatic ecosystems, associated with a poor biodegradability — hence the pending legislation banning them and growing consumer demand for alternatives.

"With the current concerns over the use of fossil resources for chemical synthesis of functional molecules and the effect of current UV absorbers in sunscreens on the ecosystem, we aimed to find a way to produce new UV absorbers from cashew nut shell liquid (CNSL) as a non-edible, bio-renewable carbon resource," says Professor Charles de Koning, of the Wits School of Chemistry and principal author of the paper; along with Till Opatz from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. "Cashew nut shells are a waste product in the cashew-farming community, especially in Tanzania; so, finding a useful, sustainable way to use these waste products can lead to completely new, environmentally friendly ways of doing things."

The team has already filed a patent application in order to commercialize the process in South Africa.