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Cosmetic formulation basics – Sunscreens

The sunscreen market is a growing one and to be a competent cosmetic chemist, you should know the basics of how to formulate one.

How a sunscreens work

A sunscreen is typically a skin lotion with added UV blockers or absorbers.  UV exposure from the sun has a number of negative impacts on skin such as burning, wrinkle causing and cancer.  So, sunscreens are designed to protect from these.  There are two ways in which they can work.  First, they have ingredients that block or reflect sunlight.  Second, they have compounds that absorb sunlight and convert it to a less harmful energy like heat.  These sunscreens are oil-soluble or disperseable so emulsions are excellent delivery vehicles.  Sunscreens are also available in gel and aerosol forms but we’ll save those types for another post.

When a sunscreen lotion is put on the skin, it forms a continuous film which provides protection from UV rays.  Ideally, this film will spread easily and will be resistant to wash-off.

Sunscreen ingredients

In the United States, sunscreens are classified as OTC drugs and are regulated by the FDA.  Accordingly, there are a limited number of approved sunscreen active ingredients.  You can find a complete list of approved sunscreens in the FDA sunscreen monograph.  For our purposes, we’ll just mention a few of the more common actives; Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide, Avobenzone, Benzophenone 8, Octocrylene, and Oxybenzone.  To vary the amount of sun protection, the level of the active ingredient is adjusted.

Moisturizing ingredients

The most common moisturizing ingredients are occlusive agents which create a barrier that blocks water from escaping the skin.  Ingredients like Petrolatum, Mineral Oil and Dimethicone can all be used as occlusive agents.  Humectants, which are ingredients that attract water, are also added to lotions.  Glycerin is the most commonly used humectant.  Finally, emollients are added to improve the feel of the lotion on the skin.  They can reduce the tackiness and greasiness caused by the other moisturizing ingredients.  Common emollients include coconut oil, cetyl esters, and certain silicones.  Sunscreen formulations are typically thinner in viscosity than standard skin lotions.

Other ingredients

In addition to the moisturizers, sunscreens contain emulsifiers to make the oil and water compatible.  There are suspending agents, neutralizing agents and thickeners.  Finally, to make it a complete and stable formula raw materials such as fragrance, preservative, and colorants are also included.

Here is a typical sunscreen formula.

Click on image to enlarge it.

 

{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Kevin 09/03/2013, 6:50 am

    What about adding in other oils like Coconut oil, Aloe, Shea Butter, Papaya (Papaya) Fruit Extract, others, etc?

    • Perry Romanowski 09/03/2013, 6:54 am

      You can if you want to.

      • Kevin 09/03/2013, 7:12 am

        Thanks…is there a recommended process for adding in these oils, or can they be added in at any stage? Just trying to understand the process, thanks!

        • Perry Romanowski 09/03/2013, 7:18 am

          These ingredients would be added to the oil phase and mixed together when the system is hot and forming the emulsion.

  • hafez 04/18/2012, 5:36 pm

    what about sesame oil as a sun block agents?

    • Perry 04/18/2012, 5:46 pm

      It’s not recommended. If you want to block UV rays you need a standard sunscreen ingredient like Titanium Dioxide or Zinc oxide

  • Toni 12/11/2011, 9:44 am

    when does item #10 come in?

    • Perry 12/11/2011, 3:02 pm

      Add it at the same time as #11

  • Kume Maximus 11/26/2011, 12:37 pm

    Am impressed with the information , but will like to broaden the knowledge gotten

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