Mirror, Mirror: Putting more protection in sunscreen

Still frames, above, from a promotional video at www.glaciercreme.com. Aaron Z. Cohens $25-a-bottle designer sunblock, left.
Still frames, above, from a promotional video at www.glaciercreme.com. Aaron Z. Cohens $25-a-bottle designer sunblock, left. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: July 21, 2010

Are we reallyprotected by drugstore sunscreens?

Aaron Z. Cohen's answer is a resounding no.

So the Center City-based former real estate investor developed his own version of a designer sunblock and named it Glacier Creme.

Never thought of the obligatory lotion as a luxury item? Check out Cohen's website, www.glaciercreme.com.

Models in bathing suits frolic - free and chic - on a sunny, sandy beach wearing cowboy boots and hats, evoking the windblown sultriness of an American Eagle or Anthropologie ad.

So far Cohen, 31, has invested about $30,000 in what he hopes will be a luxury heritage brand with the made-in-America feel that's big in fashion now. Having launched the company early this month, he's moved about 100 bottles of sunblock.

Besides being fashion forward, Cohen's $25-a-bottle concoction is part of a growing trend to pump up the sun protection in sunscreen.

While many of the sunscreens we buy are lightweight and smell good, for the most part they protect only from UVB rays - the nasty ultraviolets that cause sunburn.

But it's the UVAs we can blame for premature wrinkles and skin cancer. Minerals - namely titanium dioxide and zinc oxide - do the best job of blocking these rays.

Glacier Creme contains zinc oxide as well as green tea and sunflower-seed extracts (antioxidants) and Vitamin E and shea butter (moisturize). Although the formula is transparent and doesn't leave much chalky residue, the concentration of zinc oxide is higher than average, at 20 percent. Zinc oxide content usually ranges from 8 to 12 percent.

VoilĂ . Fundamentals with frills.

"What I wanted to do was take the values of a drugstore brand and bring it into the luxury space," said Cohen, a pale, sandy blond who grew up spending summers at the Shore and lathering himself with cheap sunscreens. Over the years, he's had several suspect moles removed.

"Through my research, I've learned that I probably wasn't getting very good UVA protection," Cohen added. "Becoming more conscious of what was in sunscreens was the start of this journey."

More cosmetics companies - from Clarins to Kiehl's - are shining a light on the need for UVA protection by adding zinc oxide to their formulas. Neutrogena has a popular sunscreen available for about $7.50, although it has only 10 percent zinc oxide.

"These sunscreens with UVA blockers are called broad-spectrum sunscreens," said William James, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist and educational spokesman for the New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation. "This is very important for efficient UVA protection. UVB protection is just not enough."

Sky-high SPFs also are on the rise.

Last summer, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, and Aveeno trotted out sunscreens with an SPF of 75+. And lately, stores are carrying products with SPFs as high as 100.

"We are seeing numbers we've never seen before," James said.

But is there a big difference between a 30 and a 75? Not really.

The SPF - sun protection factor - generally measures how long you can stay out in the sun before burning. An SPF of 15, for example, means you are protected up to 15 times longer than you would be sans sunscreen (if you don't go swimming or sweat). And then there are those UVB rays. According to James, an SPF of 15 blocks about 93 percent of the UVB rays and an SPF of 30 blocks about 97 percent.

So it's hard to tell whether an SPF of 100 would really be worth it - especially because its effectiveness depends on the amount of sunscreen each individual uses. If we are diligent in spreading the product evenly over our bodies and reapplying, James said, an SPF of 30 is probably fine.

(Glacier Creme's SPF is 30+.)

While Glacier Creme does evoke a cool-as-ice feeling when you're roasting in the sun, the name is a nod to the first effective sunscreen, developed in 1938 by Austrian chemist Franz Greiter. Called Gletscher Creme, it had an SPF equivalent of 2.

Cohen, who has a registered trademark on the English translation, uses the tagline Naked Protection.

"If you live this free-spirited, bohemian lifestyle, the only cosmetic you need is sunscreen," he said.

Or lip balm. Burned lips are so not kissable.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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