07 May 2021
Since May 28 is International Sunscreen Day, this month’s blogposts are going to be dedicated to my favourite skincare product, sunscreen! Starting with one of the biggest sunscreen scandals that led to many people questioning the reliability of Asian sunscreens- Purito-gate!
One of the biggest news to shock the cosmetics industry in 2021 was the Purito scandal, a cult favourite K-beauty brand. Purito’s Centella Green sunscreen was revealed by an independent test to have an SPF rating of 19; markedly less than its product label of SPF 50. Once the internet’s favourite sunblock, Purito’s fall grace was swift and sudden.
Once upon a time, Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ was a K-beauty cult must-have. It was well loved for its broad and high UV protection ratings, lightweight feel and natural finish- all the qualities of an ideal sunblock. So what happened?
The controversy for Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ began when its SPF rating was publicly disputed. The founder of InciDecoder was doubtful that Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+’s formulation (which contained 3% Uvinul A and 2% Uvinul T, both chemical filters) could provide the high UV protection values that it claimed. She sent samples of Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ to independent laboratories in Europe for in-vitro and in-vivo tests. The results that returned were shocking. Both in-vivo and in-vitro tests determined that Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ SPF was 19. The founder of Incidecoder has shared the results of the tests here.
Since then, the public fallout for Purito has been tremendous. Besides boycotts of their products, Purito has had their integrity questioned in a number of online videos and posts.
In the wake of the Purito scandal, K-beauty sunscreens have had their SPF and PA indices questioned. One of them is Dear, Klairs, which shares a similar sunscreen formulation with Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+. Both sunscreens are also manufactured in the same lab.
Although Dear, Klairs’ sunscreen met Korean-FDA guidelines, products produced under these guidelines may obtain results when tested under non-Korean, country specific guidelines.
Also earning the ire of the internet is K-beauty brand Keep Cool for having its sunscreen fall short of its stated values. The brand’s full response on Instagram can be found here.
More recently this year, another K-beauty brand was also caught in the fallout of the Purito controversy. Keep Cool has suspended the sales of its Soothing Bamboo Sun Essence, another well-loved sunscreen by skin care junkies after admitting that the SPF index on the product label is less than indicated on the packaging.
Whether these instances of Korean sunscreens having lower SPF and PA indices than stated were cases of neglect or deceit, these developments have undermined trust in K-beauty Asian sunscreens. Some of the questions that you might be having are:
• Why did these discrepancies in SPF and PA values occur?
• Does this mean that Korean (or Asian) sunscreens are inferior to their western counterparts?
• Should we stop using Korean sunscreens?
• Are there other sunscreens that also have discrepancies in their SPF and PA values?
There are several reasons why discrepancies between the tested and stated values of SPF differed for Purito and the aforementioned brands. If we assume, for the sake of the argument, that the brands genuinely believed their stated SPF and PA values to be correct; the discrepancies could be due to:
• Manufacturer related reasons
• Batch variations
• Discrepancies due to country specific tests.
Let’s look at each of them:
Manufacturer related reasons for SPF discrepancies
One possibility is that the correct SPF index of Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun’s true SPF is 19. Both Purito and Dear, Klair released statements that their sunscreens were developed by a manufacturer. This meant that Purito outsourced the formulation design and manufacturing process to a third party manufacturer. This practice is not uncommon in the beauty industry. Purito mentioned that it did not question and perhaps, did not do their due diligence when it came to validating the sunscreen protection indices of their products.
Could the sunscreen manufacturers or testers make a genuine mistake or fabricate their results? This may sound like a conspiracy, but the latter has been reported. In 2019, a US sunscreen testing facility, AMA Laboratories, was charged with falsifying test results of sunscreens from 1987 to 2017. Numerous sunscreens were implicated but the most damaging impact has been on sunscreens users, who misled into believing they had adequate SPF protection.
Batch variations in Skin Care
If Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun’s SPF rating was indeed 50+; how did it register as SPF 19 on the independent tests? It could be that the sunscreen samples received by the independent labs had a much lower SPF rating.
This possibility may occur because of batch specific manufacturing errors or defects. These defects may not be representative of all the products due to manufacturing problems for those batches. Manufacturers or health authorities often recall products (including food products) in specific batches for this reason.
Or perhaps, the labs received an older sunscreen sample? Active ingredients like antioxidants and sunscreen filters degrade over time. Could an odd or old sample been submitted?
The sunscreen samples provided by Incidecoder had an expiry date of 14 June 2023. The odds of this happening are very low though; unless a very, expired sunscreen sample was used. In this case, Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun’s SPF was more than halved.
Discrepancies between country specific tests
Currently there are no universal methods of assessing and regulating. It can differ from country to country. As alluded to by Purito and Dear, Klairs, conducting sunscreen tests in different countries could have yielded different results. Let’s look at why this can occur.
In the European Union, sunscreen is classified as a “cosmetic product”. For SPF regulation of sunscreens, an in-vivo test called the Standard EN ISO 24444 is used. In-vitro methods are not used for consumer information purposes.
In South Korea, sunscreen is classified as “functional cosmetics”. For SPF claims, sunscreen brands are required to submit in-vivo test results from an independent laboratory and test supervisor with more than 5 years of experience to the Korean Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) for evaluation. The Korean FDA has its own standards but also accepts other standards. The ISO 24444 is used by the European Union and most countries to evaluate SPF claims. In this method, sunscreen is applied to the backs of human volunteers. UV rays are then shone on the backs of these volunteers. The length of time that it takes the skin to burn with sunscreen on is measured against the time for the same reaction to occur without sunscreen on. For example, if without sunscreen, it takes 10 minutes for the skin to burn and with sunscreen it takes 300 minutes, then the SPF factor of the sunscreen is 300/10 = 30.
Variation in SPF results from different laboratories, especially from different countries, can vary widely1. In one study, a SPF 50 sunscreen, the confidence band could vary between SPF 30 to 1001… a very wide interval isn’t it? According to the same study these variability could be due to differences in environments, equipment and test processes1. To reliably assess the SPF values, an average of values from 3 or 4 different institutes should be taken1.
Besides these differences, what also stood out to me with regards to the Purito saga was the differences in skin types of the human volunteers, based on the assumption that subjects of different races were involved in the studies in differnt continents. European are mostly Fitzpatrick 1 to 2; South Koreans are predominantly Fitzpatrick 3. These differences in skin type affect their sun sensitivity and how easily they burn; which may in turn affect the SPF in-vivo tests. People who have Fitzpatrick 1 or 2 skin type (i.e. Caucasians) burn easily. With a higher Fitzpatrick value, people don’t burn as easily. Hence, when the same sunscreen test is conducted on people with Fitzpatrick 1 or 2 skin type, the SPF of the sunscreen tested might differ.
Yes, there are other brands too, that have had their SPF indices questioned. In 2020, the Consumer Council of Hong Kong found that 80% of 30 sunscreens that were tested did not meet their labelled SPF and PA values. According to the Consumer Council, some of the brands that fell short of their stated sunscreen ratings were Fancl, Shiseido Anessa, Curel, iPSA, Estee Lauder, Laneige, Bio-essence and Sofina. These sunscreens were tested in Australian facility called Eurofins.
Of all the brands submitted by the Consumer Council, Fancl’s results had the largest deviation from its stated indices. The Consumer Council reported that Fancl’s Sunguard 50+ Protect UV sunscreen had a value of SPF 14.3 and PA ++, far from its stated values of SPF 50+ and PA+++. Fancl has released a statement to clarify this discrepancy. In its statement, Fancl clarified that its sunscreen underwent multiple rounds of testing and highlighted some of the problems with the single test conducted by Eurofins. Most notably again, this was an Asian sunscreen that was tested on Caucasian skin and the product testing was not repeated.
These discrepancies aren’t limited to Asian sunscreens alone. Consumer watchdogs in New Zealand found that 5 out of 10 sunscreens fell short of SPF claims. The same has been reported by consumer councils in the US, which found that 43% of sunscreens had less SPF than their stated values.
Can sunscreen indices be trusted at all? With this in depth look at the Purito scandal, I hope that you can understand that assessing a sunscreen’s SPF rating is very tricky. There are no universal standards or tests in the world, so most countries have their own form of evaluation and regulation. Even with standards like the ISO 2244 that several countries use, there is a lack of standardisation in the processes and subjects across different laboratories, institutions and countries,
Sunscreens found to have a lower SPF than their stated values can occur and have occurred even before Purito-gate occured. This has happened with even more established and prominent Asian and Western beauty brands, such as my beloved Shiseido Anessa. In my sunscreen review blogpost from 2019, I shared that this lightweight and quick dry sunscreen was my daily go to.
Understandably, with Korean sunscreens being cast in negative limelight, many of us might start questioning the efficacy and credibility of K-beauty brands. This concern is valid because consumers have implicit trust in the SPF claims of beauty brands they buy from. For consumers too, there is also no way of reliably assessing the SPF and PA indices of sunscreens, unless they submit samples to a laboratory for investigations- a costly exercise. So when the SPF values of our sunscreen are disputed, the anger and disappointment that is felt is legitimate.
The onus of ensuring that SPF and PA claims are reliable falls squarely on skincare companies. The sunscreens have to live up to their claims as consumers are not able to gauge the indices by looking at the ingredient lists and concentrations. One way for this to happen is for sunscreen companies to send their sunscreens for several tests at different laboratories. Since inter-institution results of sunscreen indices vary, obtaining the average results gives a more reliable score.
Although Korean and other Asian sunscreens are bearing the brunt of Purito-gate, I don’t think Asian sunscreens are inferior or reliable as compared to Western brands. I’ve explored possibilities for discrepancies in SPF indices; which has also occurred with Western brands. In my opinion, Asian sunscreens have formulations that give a better finish- lightweight, quick dry and elegant finishes. The Western sunscreens that I have tried have yet to match up to Asian sunscreens in this aspect.
As a consumer, to stay protected, my advice is to do your research before selecting your sunscreen of choice; but understand that results of sunscreen tests can vary from lab to lab. Most of the time, information regarding the sunscreen tests are not disclosed to consumers, sunscreen companies should be held accountable for ensuring their declared SPF and PA indices are as accurate as possible. Lastly, always remember to pair your sunscreens with antioxidants and UV protection outfits for added protection!
1. Sunscreen sun protection factor claim based on in vivo interlaboratory variability. Miksa et al. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2016 Dec;38(6):541-549.