I’ve been sitting on this for about 24 hours now. Serious issues deserve serious consideration and serious responses, not hot takes and snap judgments. And the current controversy over the Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun sunscreen is a serious one indeed.
Purito, clean beauty, and the SPF problem
South Korean skincare brand Purito has amassed a loyal following of international fans–79K on their official Instagram account as of today–in part thanks to their positioning as “clean” K-beauty. Their website touts their cruelty-free and “vegan-friendly” status, their sustainable packaging choices and ongoing donations to a South Korean environmentalist organization, and their use of “safe and clean ingredients FREE of parabens, sulfates, synthetic fragrances & dyes, phenoxyethanol, triethanolamine.” In short, they’ve worked hard to hit the most popular notes in the clean beauty repertoire. So far, the strategy has seemed to resonate well with their customers.
Sunscreen is a perennial hot topic in clean beauty circles. People worry about the ethics of it thanks to concerns that some UV filters may contribute to coral reef bleaching, which chemistry PhD and skincare science educator Michelle Wong examines and concludes to be overblown. People also worry about claims that certain UV filters are “hormone disruptors,” generally unaware that the rat study most commonly cited in support of these claims involved rats being forced to ingest a massive amount of oxybenzone over the course of four days. The equivalent dosage in topical application on humans “would take applying sunscreen all over the entire body every day for 70 years.”
What this means is that a “clean” sunscreen with decent cosmetic elegance and high UV protection is in high demand. Purito’s Centella Green Level Unscented Sun seemed to fit those needs, and plenty of people in the Asian skincare community embraced it. And then its actual UV protection levels came into question.
Yesterday, Judit Rácz, the founder of cosmetics database INCIDecoder, published a blog post announcing the findings of independent testing that she commissioned in order to investigate the UV protection claims of the Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun.
In the post, she explains that as a cosmetics formulator and entrepreneur herself, with a sunscreen project in development, she questioned Purito’s claim that the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun provides SPF 50+ UVB protection, given its “unusually low filter amounts.” She commissioned a series of tests at separate Polish and German labs and provides documentation of the results in the post. The tests suggest that the actual SPF provided by the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun when used at the full 2mg/cm2 dosage is around 19. Not 50+.
That’s bad, obviously. If the independent testing results are correct, a possibility that the very similar results obtained from two separate labs seems to confirm) then that’s very bad. But how bad is it, who’s to blame, and what does it mean for users of that sunscreen and others like it?
Potential bias disclosure
Before we get into that, I want to take a quick moment to clarify any potential bias I might have, because that’s really fucking important when it comes to something as serious as this.
I have no affiliation or relationship with Purito. I’ve tried some of their products over the years, liked some of them, disliked others, including a different sunscreen of theirs, and did try the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun (out of my own pocket) but had literally zero feelings one way or the other about it. It made so little impression that I don’t think I ever even posted about it anywhere. However, I also have no beef with Purito. Clean beauty isn’t my thing, but I’m not opposed to good products that happen to be marketed that way. Neither do I have any financial interest in sunscreen one way or the other. I’m coming out with a sheet mask line, yeah, but I have absolutely zero plans to create any sunscreens. I don’t want to. That’s so far out of my wheelhouse that I don’t think you can even see the idea from my wheelhouse.
Okay. Moving on.
As things stand right now, the evidence looks in favor of the European labs’ test results being accurate to the products they were performed on.
Purito responded to the controversy in an Instagram post:
Essentially, Purito did not formulate the sunscreen in-house. Instead, they contracted with a third party manufacturer to develop it to their specifications, a common practice in the global beauty industry. The Centella Green Level Unscented Sun and its labeling were tested and approved by the KFDA and went to market without issues. In response to the current controversy, Purito has paused sales of all three of their sunscreens (the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun, the Centella Green Level Safe Sun, and the Comfy Water Sun Block that I didn’t like) and ordered additional testing on all three products. It’s a pretty standard response, and I personally see no reason to complain about how they’re handling it so far.
Who’s to blame?
If we assume the Polish and German labs’ tests are accurate and the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun really is drastically lower in SPF than originally claimed, something is wrong. The question is, what exactly went wrong, and where?
There are a few different possibilities.
One possibility is that the product formulation itself is the problem. This would mean that the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun has never been SPF 50+ and has always only been SPF 19ish. In that case, the question is whether the failure originates at the manufacturer level or the brand level, and whether the mismatch between the claimed SPF and the real SPF is due to an error or to intentional deception.
If the product formulation itself is the problem, how did it originally get recognized as SPF 50+? A likely scenario in this case would be some failure or deliberate inaccuracy from the original testing lab. This wouldn’t be the first time, nor is it a situation that could only happen in Korea. As cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko reported on his Instagram last year, “one of the leading SPF and cosmetic testing labs in the United States” has been accused of falsifying SPF tests and “has been allegedly engaging in unethical behavior since 1987.” So that’s a possibility.
Another possibility, however, is that the original product formulation was SPF 50+ (a bit doubtful, but a possibility nonetheless, since the percentages of filters in a sunscreen don’t tell the full story), but the sample(s) that were tested by the INCIDecoder-hired labs were not. A manufacturing error in a specific batch of products isn’t a new thing. The US FDA provides lot numbers for product recalls due to issues with specific batches. I’ve been squinting at the INCIDecoder blog post and test reports for a couple of hours and haven’t found any detail on specific batch or lot codes of the products sent to be tested. (If I missed it, please let me know!)
If the faulty SPF in the Centella Green Level Unscented Sun turns out to be a batch issue, it’s likely that it arose due to a genuine error rather than an active choice to deceive.
Whether the discrepancies between the tested and stated SPFs of the product were intentional or accidental matters, of course. The reason behind the problem will change how we view the brand, the manufacturer, and potentially even other products produced for different brands by the same manufacturer. But we don’t know yet where the fault lies. Plenty of people are asking good questions of the brand, and it’s worth waiting to see what the brand’s next move will be.
In the meantime, there’s already outcry about this, and for good reason. If you’re using sunscreen every day, you obviously consider sun protection important, whether for health or beauty reasons or both. Sunscreens are regulated as drugs, and there’s a much higher level of trust implicit in a sunscreen’s UV protection claims than there are for, say, the more nebulous and unquantifiable claims a calming essence or anti-aging serum might make. Finding out that a sunscreen labeled as SPF 50+ is actually only SPF 19ish feels like a betrayal even if you’re not using that exact sunscreen. It can even call into question the trust you feel for your choice of sunscreen. So it’s understandable that feelings are running high right now, especially since we don’t know all the answers yet.
I don’t see this as a reason to write off all Korean sunscreens as a whole, or all Asian sunscreens, or any other response that paints all of one country’s beauty industry with the same brush. As I’ve said again and again, Korean beauty is no more a monolith than Japanese or American or any other country’s cosmetics industry. There have been SPF testing scandals in other major markets like the US and Australia, and no country is exempt from product recalls either, no matter how stringent they claim their own cosmetics regulation to be. In 2013, Japanese brand Kanebo famously had to recall 54 products after about 10,000 customers suffered from blotchy white pigmentation loss after using them.
What the current Purito sunscreen controversy appears to be, is an isolated failure. It may be isolated to one specific batch. It may be isolated to one specific product. It may be isolated to one specific brand. It may be isolated to one specific manufacturer. It is not, as far as we know, an indictment of an entire country’s collective beauty industry or manufacturing practices. It’s for that reason that I’m not calling this a “Korean sunscreen controversy.” It’s a Purito sunscreen controversy.
Okay, but what do I do about sunscreen now?
If you’ve been using the Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun (or other Purito products), take a deep breath.
SPF 19 is certainly a lot lower than SPF 50+. It’s lower than I prefer in my sunscreen products too. Using an SPF 19 sunscreen is not, however, the end of the world (especially if you’re using it in the correct amount and receiving the full SPF 19 protection). It is still better than nothing. For health purposes, the Skin Cancer Foundation states that “regular daily use of SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40 percent, and lower your melanoma risk by 50 percent.” When used in the appropriate amounts, SPF 15 sunscreen still blocks 93 percent of UVB radiation. So an SPF 19 sunscreen isn’t useless. Yes, switching to a controversy-free, higher-protection sunscreen is a good idea from this point forward, but please don’t drive yourself crazy worrying about the period of time in which you were using the Purito sunscreen.
And if you have been using the Purito sunscreen(s) in question, remember that if you’re taking significant amounts of sun damage, it will be visible. Your skin will redden, burn, develop dark spots, and/or darken all over in response to UVB and UVA damage. Even in lab settings, SPF is measured by evaluating skin’s erythema (reddening) response to UVB. If it hadn’t been protecting you enough, you would know.
As for me, I will say that I’m very very glad I’m still using my trusty Missha All Around Safe Block Aqua Sun Gel. My skin tans extremely quickly and can burn as well, but for the past couple of years, my face has stayed the same color, without burning or tanning, despite a ton of time out in the SoCal sun. My face has stayed the same color through beach days that left me with tan lines around my bikinis and sunburn on my shoulders. My face has stayed the same color despite heavy use of the highest possible dosage of prescription tretinoin as well as regular use of AHAs.
So don’t freak out just yet. We need more information to know how the discrepancy between Purito’s claimed SPF and the independently tested lower SPF happened, which products were affected, and what that means. In the meantime, go back to another sunscreen you trust, and watch how this plays out.