Health & beauty
Our test finds 3 top sunscreens.
Sunscreen is an important part of your defence against the damaging UV radiation in the sun’s rays. But some of your sunscreen’s protection can be washed off by sweat or water after a long day at the beach, in the garden or on the sports field.
We measured the water resistance and broad-spectrum protection of 10 sunscreens. All claimed to provide SPF30 or higher protection after immersion in water.
What we found
The recommended sunscreens
Three sunscreens – Banana Boat Ultra SPF50+, Cancer Society Active SPF50+ and Nivea Sun Kids Swim & Play SPF50+ – offered “very high” protection after four hours’ immersion. They also met the requirements for broad-spectrum protection. You’ll find them in supermarkets at a reasonable price – which is great because you mustn’t stint when slapping on the sunscreen.
SunSense Sport SPF50+ and Surf Life Saving SPF50+ are “worth considering”: they offered high SPF protection plus broad-spectrum protection. Alba Botanica Sport SPF45 also provided high SPF protection but didn’t meet the broad-spectrum requirements (and it’s expensive).
A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) measures its protection against sunburn caused mainly by UVB radiation. It’s assessed on a test panel of 10 volunteers. If the sunscreen claims to be water-resistant the lab measures the SPF after the volunteers have been in water (a spa pool) for the length of “water resistance” time specified on the label. (The volunteers don’t towel themselves dry after the spa pool, because this reduces the sunscreen’s protection.)
Nine of the ten sunscreens in our test claimed to be water-resistant. The exception was Surfersskin SPF30+, which says on the front of the tube that it’s “waterproof” (a claim which is misleading and isn’t permitted by the US or Australia/New Zealand standards). But small print on the back of the tube says Surfersskin will protect you in the water for “up to 2 hours” – so we tested its water resistance after two hours.
Tip: Mopping away sweat or towelling dry will reduce your protection: apply another coat of sunscreen straight away.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA as well as UVB rays. UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots. But they don’t redden the skin like UVB does, so SPF tests tell you little about what UVA damage you may be getting. The lab uses a spectrophotometer to measure UV radiation passing through a thin film of sunscreen on a plate.
Seven sunscreens provided broad-spectrum protection.
One sunscreen (Smart365 SPF30+), provided partial protection. It protected against rays that penetrate deep into the skin but its broad-spectrum protection was less than a third of its SPF protection.
Guide to the table
Sunscreens were tested for their SPF protection after immersion in water (water resistance) and for their broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB.
Price is from a November 2013 survey.
Water resistance is what’s claimed on the label.
- A = actual duration not specified so we tested to the US and EU sunscreen standards’ definitions of “very water resistant” (80 minutes’ immersion).
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. Sunscreens are listed alphabetically within each group.
- B = UVA protection was less than a third of its SPF protection.
About our test
We bought sunscreens sold at supermarkets, pharmacies and health stores and sent them to an accredited laboratory. We’ve tested them on the same basis so that we can tell you which sunscreens performed better under the same conditions.
The lab tested the sunscreens following methods set down in the latest Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 2604:2012 which was published in May 2012. This updated standard raises the limit on SPF (sun protection factor) claims to 50+. Under the earlier 1998 standard sunscreens could claim no more than SPF 30+.
There are major changes in the method of measuring broad spectrum protection to bring it into line with US and EU standards.
Sunscreens have to meet two criteria:
- They have to reach a “critical wavelength” (to ensure that UVA protection extended to wavelengths that penetrate deep into the skin).
- The protection against UVA has 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.)
Some of the sunscreens in our test had been tested to US or EU protocols; others complied with the earlier Australian and New Zealand standard (AS/NZS 2604:1998). 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.
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.
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. New sunscreens will have to comply with the 2012 standard, although existing sunscreens may continue to comply with the 1998 standard.
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
- Look for sunscreens with an SPF of at least 30+, plus water resistance and broad-spectrum protection.
- Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun.
- Apply plenty – 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 35ml for a full-body application.
35 ml of sunscreen
Remember – a sunscreen is only one part of your defence against harmful UV radiation. When the sun’s rays are most intense (between 10am and 4pm September to April) limit your time in the sun and 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.