Preventing Free Radicals in Sunscreen Through Sophisticated Formulations


Skin cancer is most easily prevented through sun avoidance and sunscreen; however, free radicals in sunscreen are a concern for many consumers. Image Source: Flickr User:Joe Schlabotnik

Sunscreen has come under fire in recent years as the consumer demand for organic and natural products increase. Titanium dioxide (TiO2), one of the more commonly used physical UV light blockers, can react to create free radicals, which may react with and damage DNA and lead to mutations which may cause or contribute to cancer.

To reduce the chances of this happening, most sunscreen producers coat TiO2 with silica, alumina or other compounds which prevent the reaction with sunlight while preserving its sun-blocking ability. These compounds pose their own unique set of issues, but recently researchers have looked into coating TiO2 with lignin, which is widely considered to be safer and less expensive than other protective compounds.1 As researchers look to navigate this new terrain and provide safer and more cost-efficient solutions, innovative lab software that helps to create, model and track formulations will be indispensible.

Challenges Blocking the Sun

TiO2 is a common ingredient in sunscreen and, due to its reactivity, it is also commonly used across a broad range of applications, such as solar cells, photocatalysis and sterilization coatings. This reactivity is indicative of its ability to generate HO and O2-• radicals as well as churn out other reactive oxygen species (ROS). That said, it should be unsurprising that consumers have taken issue with sunscreen. It has been heralded as a “societal experiment” by those who claim that it causes enzyme inactivation and tissue damage.2  Similarly, zinc oxide has come under the same fire with a number of papers published with opposing evidence and strong accusations.

There currently is not enough scientific evidence to conclusively corroborate either set of claims, but it has swayed many consumers’ opinions and buying habits. This is driving many companies to begin to explore new avenues in terms of research and development of their sunblock products. There have been a number of attempts at “natural” sunblock, but a report released last spring indicated that 74% of mineral sunscreens tested did not meet their SPF claims.3 Moving forward into untested territory, having the right tools will be of the utmost importance. Using innovative technology that allows you to manipulate formulations will be helpful, but comprehensive lab software that then helps you track compliance and analysis results will be indispensible. This way, you can track the efficacy of the newly developed formulas while monitoring the market’s opinions on ingredients and conclusive test results regarding hypothetically dangerous components.  

Learning from Plants

In order to move away from commercially and scientifically frowned upon compounds, researchers are beginning to really dig deep and look at properties, such as different types of protein shells, that may assist in the survival of other organisms. Lignin, for example, is a natural, cross-linked phenolic polymer and is the most abundant biopolymer on earth. It can be harvested from the waste products in wood-pulp and sugar cane milling industries. Apart from being an obviously less expensive alternative, lignin also lends itself to being biocompatible, biodegradable and safe for human use. 

It is also UV-absorbent. As TiO2 only renders itself potentially harmful upon producing ROS from exposure to sunlight, it would be ideal to create a shell around it. Lignin can act as a protective coating and may block sun as well as preventing photodegradation. This means, it may potentially increase the SPF of a sunscreen while capturing the TiO2 created free radicals. Utilizing high performing software to discover the correct formula could eventually result in a sunscreen that extends the lifespan of its protective qualities and allow for the production of less expensive, longer lasting products.

Current research indicates that a lignan@TiO2 composite reduces the photocatalytic activity of TiO2 in both chemical and enzymatic reactions, while also appearing to provide photoprotection to other ingredients within the sunscreen formulation, even when present at high concentrations.4 This is phenomenal news, both for companies looking to move towards a more widely accepted “safe” compound while further medical investigation continues into TiO2 and those looking to increase the SPF rating of their products.

BIOVIA Formulations is the key piece to moving through a whole new set of parameters while exploring possibilities with new sunscreen formulations. It will allow you to retrieve product information and find the information you need to quickly make confident decisions about the formulations you are delivering to the consumer. This solution has features like raw material definitions, regulatory restrictions and ingredient definitions, ensuring that your free-from labelling is accurate and complies with any necessary regulations. Please contact us today to learn more about how our software options can support the efforts of your lab.

  1. “Lignin waste could sustainably safeguard titanium-based sunscreen,” October 7, 2016,
  2.  “Sunscreens with Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) Nano-Particles: A Societal Experiment,” August 2010,
  3.  “Nearly Half of All Sunscreens Fail to Meet their SPF Claims,” May 18, 2016,
  4. “Improving the Sunscreen Properties of TiO2 through an Understanding of Its Catalytic Properties,” September 23, 2016,