Health & beauty
Which sunscreens offer the best protection?
The UVA and UVB radiation in sunlight contribute to skin cancer, damage to the immune system and premature skin ageing. Sunscreens are one way to protect yourself against these risks when you’re out having summer fun.
We tested 10 sunscreens sold online as well as in health stores, pharmacies and supermarkets to see how well they protected against UV rays.
What we found
All the sunscreens we tested claimed an SPF (the “sun protection factor" against sunburn) of at least 30 and all claimed to provide broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB. Nine also claimed to be water resistant for anything from 40 minutes to four hours depending on the product.
We sent the sunscreens to a specialist sunscreen-testing laboratory in Australia. How did they measure up?
The 3 "high protection" sunscreens
Water resistance is assessed on a test panel of 10 volunteers. The lab measured the SPF after the volunteers had been in water (a spa pool) for the length of time specified in that product’s water-resistance claim.
Our tests found three sunscreens which provided “high protection” (greater than SPF 30) after our volunteers had been in the water. These are:
- Nivea Sun Moisturising Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30+ (after 4 hours immersion)
- Ego SunSense Ultra SPF 50+ (after 4 hours)
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer SPF 85+ (after 80 minutes).
Another five sunscreens would provide “moderate protection” (an SPF of less than 30 but more than 20) after you’ve been in the water – see our Test results table. However, they’d provide high SPF protection of 30 or more if you stay out of it.
Invisible Zinc Face + Body SPF 30+ didn’t claim to be water resistant – so the panel skipped the spa pool. But we included this sunscreen in the test because it’s widely available in pharmacies. It provides high protection of at least SPF 30 as long as you aren’t planning to be in the water.
In broad-spectrum testing the lab uses a spectrophotometer to measure UV radiation passing through a thin film of sunscreen on a plate.
For our test the sunscreens had to meet two criteria:
1. They had to reach a “critical wavelength” (to ensure that UVA protection extended to wavelengths that penetrate deep into the skin).
2. The protection against UVA had to be at least one-third of the claimed SPF protection. (This ensures that high-SPF sunscreens will also have very good protection against UVA.)
Four sunscreens met both criteria:
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 85+
- NO-AD Sport Sunblock Lotion SPF 50
- Invisible Zinc Face & Body SPF 30+
- Blue Earth Sun Protection SPF 30.
Four other sunscreens achieved a partial pass: they reached the “critical wavelength” but their protection against UVA was less than a third of their claimed SPF protection.
Two sunscreens failed to meet the criteria: Your Pharmacy and Skinnies. But their distributors have provided us with test evidence that both products meet the 1998 Australian and New Zealand standard for broad-spectrum protection.
Naturally not good enough
Blue Earth Sun Protection SPF 30
Blue Earth Sun Protection SPF 30 provided only “low protection” (an SPF of less than 10) after 40 minutes in the water.
Its distributors told us that Blue Earth had not been tested on human subjects. They said the sunscreen was “anhydrous (oil-based) … it naturally resists water”.
However, “in vivo” testing on human volunteers is a vital component in assessing a sunscreen’s ability to stay on the skin without breaking down or being washed off by sweat or water. International standards stipulate that a sunscreen’s SPF must be determined by in vivo testing. As our test shows, Blue Earth’s laboratory testing simply wasn’t enough to prove whether or not the sunscreen could meet its SPF claim. Blue Earth also claims to be “waterproof” – this term is misleading and isn’t permitted by the US and Australia/New Zealand standards.
It’s an offence under the Fair Trading Act (FTA) to make false or misleading claims. We will be laying a formal complaint with the Commerce Commission, based on the results of our test and the fact that Blue Earth couldn’t provide us with acceptable test evidence that substantiated its claim. Until it can provide this evidence, we believe the product should be withdrawn.
Guide to the table
Sunscreens were tested for their SPF protection from UVB after immersion in water (water resistance) and for their broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB (see About our test for more information).
- A = test results supplied to support SPF water-resistance claim.
Price is from a November 2012 survey.
Water resistance as claimed on the label.
- B = actual duration not specified so we tested to the US and EU sunscreen standards’ definitions of “very water resistant” and “water resistant" (80 minutes’ and 40 minutes’ immersion respectively). “Waterproof” tested for 40 minutes.
SPF protection shows the level of protection that remained after our test volunteers had been in the water for the duration of the water-resistance time claimed on the product’s label.
- C = not tested for water-resistance, tested SPF = 30+.
Broad-spectrum (UVA+UVB) protection shows whether the product met our two criteria for this (see explanation in text).
- Yes = met both criteria.
- Partial = met critical wavelength requirement only.
About our test
We tested the sunscreens according to the methods set out in the latest Australian and New Zealand sunscreen standard (AS/NZS 2604:2012), which was published in May 2012.
This updated standard introduces major changes in the method of measuring broad-spectrum protection, to bring it into line with US and EU standards.
None of the sunscreens in this test claimed to comply with the 2012 Australian and New Zealand standard. Some had been tested to US or EU protocols; others complied with the earlier Australian and New Zealand standard (AS/NZS 2604:1998). Our Test results table notes which companies have provided test evidence to support their claims.
We chose to follow the 2012 standard so that all products were compared on the same basis, using the most up-to-date procedures in line with international practice.
In Australia compliance with the Australian and New Zealand standard is mandatory. From November 2012 new sunscreens sold in Australia will have to comply with the 2012 standard, although existing sunscreens can continue to comply with the 1998 standard.
Sunscreens are regulated as therapeutic products in Australia and are required to be authorised for supply and meet a mandatory standard. New Zealand classifies sunscreens as a cosmetic. As our test found, at least one product sold here has no test evidence to support its claims.
We’ve been calling for sunscreens to be classified as a therapeutic product and for compliance with the sunscreen standard to be mandatory. We’re pleased to see there’s finally some progress towards this goal.
In June 2012 the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand announced the setting up of a new trans-Tasman agency, the Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Agency (ANZTPA). This agency will replace Australia’s TGA and our Medsafe, and will administer a new scheme to regulate therapeutic products for both countries. Sunscreens will be classified as a therapeutic product and will have to comply with the Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreens. ANZTPA and the new requirements for sunscreens sold here are expected to be up and running by mid-2016.
- Compliance with a single standard should be mandatory. At present sunscreens sold here may comply with any of several different standards – or with none at all. This is confusing for the consumer.
- We welcome the proposed establishment of the ANZTPA. We also welcome the news that sunscreens sold here after 2016 will be classified as a therapeutic product and so will have to comply with the Australian and New Zealand sunscreen standard.
- We see no reason why compliance with the standard couldn’t be brought in sooner than 2016.
A recent ruling by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) will allow consumers to make an informed decision about using sunscreens that contain nanoparticles.
Some sunscreens use powders of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to form a physical barrier against the sun's rays. They reflect UVA as well as UVB rays and reduce the need to use chemicals that may irritate the skin.
In the past, sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide came as thick white pastes that were messy to use and left a ghostly white sheen on your skin. Then scientists found that shrinking the particles of these two ingredients to less than 100 nanometres (a nanometre equals one-billionth of a metre) made them transparent but kept their sunscreen action.
Sunscreen manufacturers say that products which contain nanoparticles have lower levels of chemical absorbers (which can irritate the skin). People are more likely to apply them properly because they’re more cosmetically acceptable than ordinary zinc-oxide or titanium-dioxide products.
However, nanoparticles may be tiny enough to slip through cell membranes of the skin. So there are concerns about nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide being absorbed into skin cells and then interacting with sunlight to increase the risk of damage to these cells. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration has said this would be a concern only if the nanoparticles penetrated living skin cells – “the weight of current evidence is that they remain on the surface of the skin".
A recent European Commission report found that from the available information there was no evidence for the absorption of zinc oxide nanoparticles through skin – but “the risk assessment of nanomaterials is currently evolving”.
In July 2012 the EPA announced it had amended its Cosmetic Products Group Standard so that the ingredients list of any cosmetic product sold here (including sunscreens) would have to indicate whether the product contained nanomaterials. Any such ingredients will be followed by the word “nano” in brackets. However, to allow time for existing stocks to be sold, the requirement wouldn't come into effect until July 2015.
Sense in the sun
5 ml of sunscreen
What to buy
Look for sunscreens with an SPF claim of at least 30, plus broad-spectrum protection and water resistance.
To get good protection you need to apply plenty of sunscreen – about one teaspoonful (5ml) for each arm, each leg, your back, your front and your face (which includes your neck and ears. That adds up to about 35 ml for a full-body application. (Our Test results table compares costs for the test sunscreens in the largest packs we could find.)
35 ml of sunscreen
Water-resistant sunscreens maintain their protection after swimming or sweating – but you’ll still need to reapply them regularly, especially if you towel dry.
Tip: A sunscreen is only your third line of defence – the best way to avoid harmful UV radiation is to keep out of the sun between 10am and 4pm from September to April or to wear cover-up clothing (see our UPF clothing report).
For more sun protection information see www.sunsmart.org.nz.
Frequently asked questions
What difference does the SPF make?
"SPF" stands for "sun protection factor". It's a measure of protection against mainly UVB rays, the ones that cause sunburn. The higher the SPF number, the greater the protection - up to 50+.
Above SPF 50+ the additional protection is very small. In fact, high SPF values are a problem. Studies have shown that people use them to stay out longer in the sun, using sunburn as a warning to take cover. During this time you can receive large doses of UVA radiation.
The new Australian/New Zealand standard limits SPF claims to 50 in line with other international standards.
What does "broad spectrum" mean?
Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB radiation. Both contribute to premature skin ageing, damage to the immune system and skin cancer.
UVA radiation penetrates deep into the skin layer; it's dangerous because there's no immediate warning sign (such as the sunburn caused by UVB rays).
Will the sunscreen protect me all day?
No - sunscreen can be sweated, washed or rubbed off, the chemicals may break down over time, and people simply don't apply enough (see Sense in the sun). You should reapply sunscreen every two hours.
Does having a tan mean you don't need as much sunscreen?
No. A tan is a sign that skin damage has already started. Any further UV radiation will only add to the damage, resulting in wrinkled leathery skin and possibly skin cancer later in life.
Do I need a special sunscreen for my child?
Proper protection from the sun is more important during childhood than at any other time in life. Childhood and teenage sunburn is a high-risk factor for developing melanoma.
Sunscreens that are specially formulated for children have a mild base designed especially for their sensitive skin. But there's no reason why children shouldn't use the family sunscreen, provided it doesn't irritate their skin. Test a small amount on the inside of their forearm first.
Keep babies and toddlers out of the sun as much as possible. The best protection for them is staying in the shade and using cover-up clothing - as it is for everybody.
Report by Bev Frederikson.