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After the Purito Sunscreen Scandal, Can We Still Trust SPF Ratings?

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Photo: Ziga Mihelcic

A cult beauty favorite of skincare aficionados and beauty editors everywhere, Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ has topped best sun-care lists since its launch. A Korean product, it was praised for its high sun protection, just-right hydration, and its lightweight feel that didn’t leave a white cast. Fans were also impressed that such a high broad spectrum SPF could be achieved with only two organic filters – three percent Uvinul A and two percent Uvinul T – a formula that seemed unlikely to the cosmetic chemists and ingredients specialists who started questioning Purito’s label claims.

But it appears the bestseller was indeed too good to be true, with users were reporting being sunburnt while wearing the product as directed, even when reapplying often and liberally. It started to unravel when Judit Racz, founder of ingredients glossary INCI Decoder, became suspicious and sent samples of the sun-cream to an independent laboratory for two separate tests, one in-vitro and one in-vivo. The results rated the sunscreen’s true protection at SPF19, not the SPF50+ it retails as, or Purito’s self-reported SPF84.5. After Racz shared her results online, digital skincare communities blew up, with some bloggers scaremongering that K-beauty products were no longer safe to use, while others pointed out that the entire Asian beauty market wasn’t to blame for one brand’s scandal.

Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ sunscreen

Purito Centella Green Level Unscented Sun SPF50+ sunscreen

For their part, Purito released a statement on Instagram, citing the third party manufacturer’s as the gatekeeper for rating testing. “We have put our trust on the manufacturing company, and accept the issue that has resulted. We will take this situation as a lesson, and check the details with more parties during the process of product development.”

Now that the dust has settled, several brands have removed a selection of their SPF products from retail, including Purito. Science educator, Michelle Wong, who covers beauty science on her Labmuffin media channels explains what these developments mean for K-beauty moving forward, and if SPF ratings are still able to be trusted, regardless of market.

Does this mean Purito deliberately misled consumers?
“Not necessarily, although that’s possible. Sunscreens testing at lower SPFs in independent tests is not a new phenomenon, and there are a lot of possibilities. For example, a lot of sunscreens tested by AMA Labs, a testing facility based in the US, have been found to be mislabelled due to alleged fraud by the testing lab.”

What makes the INCI Decoder tests more trustworthy than Purito’s own testing?
“Compared to the Purito test, the INCI Decoder tests have been replicated (two European labs came up with similar results). On the other hand, the INCI Decoder tests don’t follow the ISO24444 protocol exactly. A newer test from an independent Korean lab (Korea Institute of Dermatological Sciences) has tested the Purito sunscreen at SPF 28.4 using the ISO24444 protocol, so it’s quite likely that the Purito sunscreen has a significantly lower SPF than the labelled SPF 50+.”

Other regional brands like Dear, Klairs have also recalled products. Does this mean there’s an issue with the testing of all Asian sunscreens?
“Not necessarily more than in other places around the world. Consumer advocacy groups regularly test sunscreens, and often find them to have lower SPFs than the label. In 2016, Consumer Reports found that 23 out of the 60 US sunscreens they investigated tested at less than half their labelled SPF. The Hong Kong Consumer Council found that 25 out of 30 Asian sunscreens they tested in October 2020 had less than their SPF label, which included Japanese, Korean and Western sunscreens. In late 2015, Choice Magazine tested six Australian sunscreens and only two met their label claim. In Europe, seven of the 41 products analyzed by Test-Achats did not match their label claims.”

Is there a big difference between sunscreens created for Asian audiences versus those created by larger Western brands?
“Western sunscreens tend to be heavier and more water-resistant, and intended for outdoor use, while Asian sunscreens tend to be lighter and more suitable for everyday use under makeup when sun exposure is minimal.”

Should this recall change how consumers use sunscreen? Is there adequate protection?
“It doesn’t change anything, but it does highlight some of the problems that have existed with sunscreens, and the fact that they shouldn’t be treated like a coat of armour. In general, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the conditions for which the sunscreen was designed – if you’re going swimming or exercising and getting a lot of sun exposure, it’s best to use a water resistant sunscreen. It’s also important to remember that sunscreen shouldn’t be your only form of sun protection – UV protective clothing, hats and sunglasses are important, as well as avoiding the sun in the hottest part of the day.”

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