Woman having sunscreen rubbed on her back.
21 November 2019

Big brands fail sunscreen test

Nine sunscreens didn’t meet the SPF claimed on the label, including a Cancer Society product.

Consumer NZ’s latest test of sunscreens found nine of 20 products didn’t provide the sun protection claimed.

Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin said sunscreens that failed included a Cancer Society product and several other big-name brands.

Ms Chetwin said the Cancer Society Everyday Sun Lotion SPF50+ was tested at two different labs and returned a maximum of SPF30. To claim SPF50+, a sunscreen has to achieve SPF60 in lab tests.

“As a result of our findings, the Cancer Society said it’s withdrawing the batch of the product we tested. However, given the reports we have from two separate labs showing the sunscreen doesn’t measure up to its claimed performance, we’ve asked it to recall all batches of this product,” Ms Chetwin said.

Sunsense Ultra SPF50+, Banana Boat Dry Balance Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ and Marine Blue Australia Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ also failed to meet their SPF50+ claims. The products only provided moderate protection, returning SPFs from 20.61 to 26.4.

Five other products also didn’t provide the SPF claimed on the label, although still provided high protection (SPF 30 to 50), and three sunscreens didn’t provide the broad-spectrum protection claimed.

Ms Chetwin said several companies, including the Cancer Society and Sunsense, had tested their products at AMA Laboratories, a sunscreen-testing facility in the US. The Cancer Society’s test report for its product was from 2019 and Sunsense’s from 2016.

“In August 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration announced AMA’s owner had been charged with, and some staff had pleaded guilty to, falsifying test results from 1987 to April 2017,” she said.

“For many years, sunscreen companies have been sending us test results from AMA that conflicted with our tests. We think companies relying on these results should urgently re-test at a different lab to ensure they can back up claims.”

In its 2018 round of testing, Consumer NZ found only four of 19 sunscreens met their SPF label claims and requirements for broad-spectrum protection.

Ms Chetwin said the government needed to urgently regulate sunscreens. “New Zealand has one of the highest rates of skin cancer and melanoma in the world but the sunscreen standard remains voluntary.”

In April, Consumer NZ made a submission to the Ministry of Health supporting sunscreens being required to comply with the Australian New Zealand standard. Ms Chetwin said her organisation had also asked for regulations to specify how often sunscreens must be tested and include minimum requirements for test labs.

Full test results are available free. Results will also be published in the December-January issue of Consumer.

Sun safety tips

  • Look for sunscreens with an SPF of at least 30, plus water resistance and broad-spectrum protection.

  • Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outside.

  • 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.

  • Ignore “once-a-day” claims. Sunscreen should be reapplied often – every two hours you’re outside.

  • Mopping up sweat or towelling dry reduces protection: apply another coat of sunscreen immediately.

A sunscreen is only one part of your defence. Cover up with suitable clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses. When the sun’s rays are most intense (between 10am and 4pm September to April or when the UV index is greater than three), limit your time in the sun.

Member comments

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chris m.
18 Jan 2020
Reef-friendly sun screen

I visited a diving company in the Solomon Islands and they offered free use of a sunscreen that (when washed off) won't adversely affect the reef. It appears (I had no idea) that nearly all sun screens have chemicals that are bad for reefs when washed off in the sea.
So the questions are: What sun screen is 'sea-life friendly', Does anyone sell it in NZ and can sun screen affect other life forms (do the chemicals get absorbed through our skin?)

Consumer staff
21 Jan 2020
Re: Reef-friendly sun screen

Hi Chris,

Some ingredients, in particular oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (aka octyl methoxycinnamate) are emerging as an environmental concern, especially in beach regions where they’re washed off. We’ve listed the active ingredients in the sunscreens we’ve tested (https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/sunscreens/test-results) and also noted which ones contain oxybenzone. None of the sunscreens in our test contain octinoxate.

To choose sunscreens without these chemicals, check the packaging – all active ingredients in sunscreens must be listed.

Sunscreens can be broadly divided into physical blockers and chemical absorbers. Physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) reflect and scatter UV radiation, and chemical absorbers work by absorbing UV radiation. Some people choose to avoid chemical sunscreens because of concerns the ingredients are absorbed through the skin. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration asked the sunscreen industry to provide additional safety information on 12 chemical sunscreen ingredients to validate their safety and effectiveness.

I hope that helps.

Belinda - Consumer NZ writer

Previous member
26 Nov 2019
My picks

I would recommend the Nivea dry touch which passed, have used it many times and found it very good. Not greasy and effective in water. I know solely use Skinnies,not tested but very impressed with it.

Previous member
12 Jan 2020

That's exactly what I use and I LOVE it! SO happy it passed! Thank you for sharing that.