sunscreen products

Sunscreens: Which can you trust?

January 2019 update: Another five sunscreens have failed to meet SPF label claims in our latest round of testing. Test results for four more sunscreens will be available soon.

Our latest round of sunscreen testing found six products that didn’t give the SPF protection claimed – one product only gave low protection, despite claiming a high protection of SPF30.

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The sun exposes you to two types of UV rays – UVA and UVB.

  • UVA penetrates deeply into the skin and can cause wrinkles and age spots.
  • UVB causes skin reddening and is the main cause of sunburn.

Both rays can cause skin cancer. Wearing sunscreen is an important part of your defence against these damaging rays.

But can you have faith in the label claims? We checked ten sunscreens against two aspects of the voluntary Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreens: a sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor), which measures protection against UVB rays, and its broad-spectrum protection (against UVA and UVB rays). The standard requires SPF to be assessed using a test panel of 10 volunteers in a lab – there’s no trip to Fiji for our panel.

We’re testing 10 more sunscreens and will have these results as soon as they are available.

Up to standard

Only three of the 10 sunscreens met their SPF label claim and the requirements for broad-spectrum protection: Nivea Sun Kids Protect & Sensitive Sun Lotion SPF50+ ($7.50 per 100ml), UV Guard Max Sunscreen SPF50+ ($12.00) and Essone Natural Sunscreen Summer Coconut & Jojoba SPF30 ($51.30).

Left to right: Essone Natural Sunscreen Summer Coconut & Jojoba SPF30, UV Guard Max Sunscreen SPF50+, Nivea Sun Kids Protect & Sensitive Sun Lotion SPF50+, Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion Kids SPF50+.
Left to right: Essone Natural Sunscreen Summer Coconut & Jojoba SPF30, UV Guard Max Sunscreen SPF50+, Nivea Sun Kids Protect & Sensitive Sun Lotion SPF50+, Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion Kids SPF50+.

Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion Kids SPF50+ ($4.00 per 100ml from The Warehouse) met its very high protection label claim. However, it failed one of the broad-spectrum requirements (its protection against UVA wasn’t at least a third of its SPF protection).

We contacted The Warehouse about our test results and it sent a sample to a US laboratory to check its broad-spectrum compliance. These test results showed it met the broad-spectrum requirements. The sunscreen sample we tested was from a different batch so the lab and batch variation could explain the difference in results.

Contradictory results

Six products didn’t meet the SPF claimed on their label. We sent our results to the companies and asked what evidence they’d used to make their claims.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face & Body Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion has an SPF50 label claim. With a tested SPF of 42, it still provides high protection but not the SPF 50 claimed.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face & Body Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion provides high protection but not the SPF 50 claimed.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face & Body Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion provides high protection but not the SPF 50 claimed.

In December 2017, Johnson & Johnson New Zealand (the marketers of Neutrogena) signed court-enforceable undertakings that its sunscreens would meet the voluntary standard, after our previous testing found the company’s Neutrogena Sensitive Skin SPF60+ failed to provide the high protection it claimed. Testing by the Commerce Commission also found this cream didn’t meet the SPF60+ claim. The company voluntarily withdrew the sunscreen in September 2016. It said it stood by its test results.

Johnson & Johnson told us all Neutrogena sunscreens currently sold in New Zealand met the standard. But it declined to provide us with a test certificate for its Ultra Sheer Face & Body sunscreen. The company said the SPF50 label claim was backed by test results and it stood by the claim.

The distributors of Bondi Sands Coconut Beach Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+, Banana Boat SunComfort SPF50+, Sunsense Sensitive Invisible SPF50+ and Coola Classic Body Plumeria SPF30 provided us with test results showing their products had been tested on 10 human subjects and met their claimed SPF. However, the Banana Boat and Sunsense test certificates were from 2015 and the Coola testing was done in 2013 – five years ago! As a result of our test, Coola said it was commissioning an independent review of its formula.

Sunscreen manufacturers don’t have to regularly test their products, but we think they should to make sure different batches are still meeting label claims.

Why the variation?

  • Lack of consistency between batches: Companies don’t have to regularly test their products to ensure they still meet SPF claims even if the ingredient supply changes. This is especially an issue for sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
  • Testing on humans: The standard for SPF testing is based on human subjects so there will always be variability. People burn at different rates, which can give different results in small sample sizes.
  • Lack of consistency between labs: Our testing has highlighted the variability of results between laboratories when products are tested the same way.
  • Storage conditions: Sunscreens deteriorate over time, especially if kept in hot places.

Standard practice

The sunscreen standard is mandatory in Australia, but voluntary here (where sunscreens are classified as cosmetics). Products that meet other international standards, such as those in the US or EU, are also allowed to be sold as well as sunscreens that don’t meet any standard at all.

We’ve been campaigning for a mandatory sunscreen standard for many years. In a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer and melanoma in the world, it’s not good enough sunscreens aren’t regulated.

When US consumer organisation Consumer Reports tested sunscreens earlier this year 24 of the 73 lotions, sprays, sticks and lip balms tested at less than half their labelled SPF.

The experts agree. The New Zealand Dermatological Society and Skin Cancer College Australasia supports our campaign for regulation.

Skin Cancer College president Dr Keith Monnington said voluntary compliance with the standard is not satisfactory for a country with high skin cancer rates. “Consumers need to have confidence in SPF claims made by sunscreen manufacturers,” Dr Monnington said.

Our results aren’t a one-off. Last year only nine (out of 20) sunscreens in our test met their SPF label claim and requirements for broad spectrum.

It’s a similar story overseas. When US consumer organisation Consumer Reports tested sunscreens earlier this year 24 of the 73 lotions, sprays, sticks and lip balms tested at less than half their labelled SPF. Consumer organisations in Australia and the UK have also found sunscreens not meeting label claims.

The Ministry of Health is working on new legislation to regulate therapeutic products. Sunscreens are likely to be included but no final decision has been made. When the draft legislation is released, we’ll be making a submission calling for the sunscreen standard to be mandatory.

What’s in them?

Sunscreens can be broadly divided into two groups – physical blockers and chemical absorbers.

Physical blockers

Physical blockers (such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by reflecting or scattering UV radiation and are effective at protecting against both UVA and UVB radiation. A downside is they leave white marks on the skin, although some physical sunscreens now use nanoparticles – tiny molecules with one or more dimension less than 100nm – which makes the sunscreen transparent.

Are nanoparticles safe?

There is debate about the safety of nanoparticles and whether they can penetrate the outer layer of skin (which has been shown in lab studies) and damage living cells.

There is debate about the safety of nanoparticles and whether they can penetrate the outer layer of skin.
There is debate about the safety of nanoparticles and whether they can penetrate the outer layer of skin.

In January 2017, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration updated its review on the safety of zinc oxide and titanium oxide nanoparticles. The review looked at both in vitro (studies on skin cells) and in vivo (studies on humans and animals). It concluded the majority of studies found nanoparticles didn’t penetrate “or minimally penetrated” the skin, suggesting “systemic absorption, hence toxicity, is highly unlikely”.

The European Commission concluded available evidence suggests zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles can be considered safe for use on the skin as sunscreens up to a concentration of 25%. This does not apply to sprayable products, which might be inhaled.

With cosmetic products, which include sunscreens, nanoparticle ingredients are required to be labelled. The word “nano” must appear in brackets after the ingredient. However, if a sunscreen complies with Australian regulations, this isn’t required and products don’t need to declare the ingredients’ particle size.

Chemical absorbers

Chemical absorbers (such as octinoxate or oxybenzone) work by absorbing UV radiation and can be further differentiated by the type of radiation they absorb – UVA or UVB. Chemical sunscreens will often have a combination of ingredients to protect against UVA and UVB.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate: an environmental concern

Some people choose to avoid certain chemical absorbers, such as oxybenzone, because of concerns they are endocrine disruptors. However, these effects have been only shown in animal and tissue tests with doses vastly greater than you’d be exposed to when using a sunscreen. Studies in humans have shown no evidence of endocrine effects.

However, oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (aka octyl methoxycinnamate) are chemical absorbers that are emerging as an environmental concern, especially in beach regions where they’re washed off.

Studies have shown some chemical blockers are toxic to coral and potentially harmful to other aquatic organisms.
Studies have shown some chemical blockers are toxic to coral and potentially harmful to other aquatic organisms.

A 2015 study published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology identified oxybenzone as toxic to coral. Baby coral exposed to oxybenzone showed signs of coral bleaching (a condition that leaves it vulnerable to infection and prevents it getting nutrients), DNA damage, and growth and skeletal abnormalities.

Other studies have shown the chemicals are potentially harmful to other aquatic organisms such as fish, sea urchins and shrimp.

Due to the evidence showing these ingredients impact negatively on marine life, the New Zealand Dermatological Society recommends using sunscreens without them. From 2021, sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate will be banned in Hawaii, except on prescription.

The use of oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens is regulated. At present, it’s allowed to be used up to a maximum concentration of 10%. Regulators in Europe have recently reduced this to 6% for oxybenzone.

To choose sunscreens without these chemicals, check the ingredients list – sunscreen actives must be listed.

Sunscreen irritation

Certain ingredients in sunscreens can irritate some people. This may be due to sensitive skin or a reaction to one of the ingredients (a chemical, preservative or fragrance).

The active ingredients in sunscreens must be listed on the label. However, unlike other cosmetics, sunscreens are exempt from having to list all ingredients if they comply with the Australian requirements.

You can check out the active ingredients and preservatives of our tested sunscreens in our table.

We say

It’s time the government made the Australian and New Zealand standard mandatory. The current situation where compliance is voluntary isn’t good enough for a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

Companies should be testing each new formulation of a product, especially if it contains different active ingredients. They should also regularly test their products to ensure different batches still meet their label claims.

Our test

Our accredited lab tested the sunscreens following the methods in the Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 2604:2012. Our samples were sent “blind” to the lab and packed according to its instructions.

SPF testing

To determine a sunscreen’s SPF number, the sunscreen is applied to a test subject at a rate of 2mg per cm² skin. The sunscreen is evenly spread out and allowed to dry for 15 minutes. A similar-sized area is measured out and left unprotected.

A special lamp, simulating the part of the UV spectrum that causes sunburn, is shone on both areas for varying amounts of time. The next day a technician determines the smallest dose of UV light required to cause redness in both areas and this is used to determine the SPF. Ten people are tested for each sunscreen and the SPF results are averaged.

Broad-spectrum protection

Using a spectrophotometer, the lab measures the UVA protection passing through a thin film of sunscreen on a plate. To pass, a sunscreen has to meet two requirements. It has to reach a “critical wavelength” that ensures UVA protection extends to wavelengths that penetrate deeper into the skin. Its protection against UVA has to be at least a third of the SPF protection against sunburn.

We didn’t test water resistance.

Test results

What do the SPF numbers mean?

An SPF15 sunscreen that’s properly applied is meant to give you 15 times the protection you’d get with unprotected skin.

So if you were outside in the sort of sun that burns unprotected skin in 10 minutes, then SPF15 would give you 150 minutes of protection. For SPF30 sunscreen that time would extend to 300 minutes and for SPF50 it would be 500 minutes.

That’s the theory. These times vary from person to person because of skin type, activities (such as heavy exercise or swimming) and how well the sunscreen is applied. No matter how high the SPF, any sunscreen should be reapplied regularly – every 2 hours you’re in the sun. No sunscreen blocks 100% of UV rays: SPF15 blocks 93% of UVB, SPF30 blocks 97%, and SPF50 blocks 98%.

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.

Remember – a sunscreen is only one part of your defence against UV radiation. The New Zealand Dermatological Society also recommends you 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 Ultraviolet Index (UVI) is greater than three) it’s also a good idea to limit your time in the sun.

Frequently asked questions

"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.

For more information, see “What do the SPF numbers 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).

No - sunscreen can be sweated, washed or rubbed off, the chemicals may break down over time, and people simply don't apply enough (see "Sun safety tips" above). You should reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.

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.

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.

According to Professor Marius Rademaker, from the Dermatology Unit at the Waikato District Health Board, you don’t need a special sunscreen for kids. He told us there was little evidence to suggest there was a safety issue with using the active ingredients of adult sunscreens on children.

Professor Rademaker told us it was important to remember that sunscreens were just one component of keeping safe in the sun. “As well as wearing sunscreen, children should wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and parents should plan outdoor activities for early in the morning or later in the afternoon.”

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.


By Belinda Castles
Research and Testing Writer




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