14dec sunscreen hero default

Sunscreens

Sunscreen is an important part of your kids’ defence against the damaging UV radiation in the sun’s rays when they’re enjoying the summer sun. But whether you can have total faith in the label claims is questionable because of conflicting test results.

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We measured the SPF protection and broad-spectrum protection of 12 sunscreens, including kids’ products. We’re concerned about our findings – 7 products didn’t meet the SPF claim on their label in our testing. However, most manufacturers have been able to supply test evidence that their product meets its SPF label claim.

We test for 2 key aspects of the voluntary Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreens: a sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) and its broad-spectrum protection.

SPF measures a sunscreen’s protection against sunburn caused mainly by UVB radiation. It’s assessed on a test panel of 10 volunteers.

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 the UVA damage you could be getting.

Important Aloe Up update

This online version of the article varies from the magazine version because we have received updated test results from Aloe Up. These results were unfortunately overlooked before the December magazine went to press. We regret this error.

Although the distributor of Aloe Up also had in-vivo testing to support its label claim, the company voluntarily recalled this batch number (and all but 6 tubes have been removed from sale). Since then, Aloe Up has retested the same batch at their test lab, AMA Labs, using a 5-subject test. These results mean Consumer is satisfied that Aloe Up will meet its label claim.

All-round protection

4 sunscreens in our testCancer Society Kids Pure SPF50+, Nivea Sun Kids Pure & Sensitive SPF50+, Banana Boat Kids Spray SPF50+ and Kiwiscreen Kids SPF50+ – offered “very high” SPF protection. They also met the requirements for broad-spectrum protection in our test.

We've made them "worth considering" because they were the cheapest products we tested. This means you won't have to stint when slapping on sunscreen.

8 products failed either our SPF or broad-spectrum protection tests. Some failed both (see our Test results table for details).

SPF protection

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

The distributors of EVOA, Invisible Zinc, Neutrogena, SunSense and Wotnot provided us with evidence that their products had been tested on human subjects. This evidence supported their label claims.

EVOA has re-tested a sunscreen from the same batch we tested and these new test results support its SPF label claim.

Wotnot has also re-tested its sunscreen at the lab that did our testing. This time the preliminary results suggest Wotnot should meet its label claim. SunSense has done re-testing, too, at the lab it uses. Its initial results mean Consumer NZ is satisfied that SunSense will meet its label claim.

Broad-spectrum protection

To provide this, a sunscreen has to meet 2 criteria. It has to reach a “critical wavelength” that ensures UVA protection extends to wavelengths that penetrate deep into the skin. Our lab uses a spectrophotometer to measure UVA radiation passing through a thin film of sunscreen on a plate. This is a standard international test recognised in over 50 countries.

And its protection against UVA has to be at least one-third of the SPF protection against UVB.

5 sunscreens didn’t meet these criteria. 3 of them provided partial broad-spectrum protection in our test. EVOA and Neutrogena reached their “critical wavelength” but their protection against UVA was less than a third of their SPF protection. Wotnot didn’t reach its “critical wavelength”. EVOA provided us with evidence that its product meets its broad-spectrum claim.

2 products (La’Bonic and Green People) failed both criteria. Green People’s own test results confirmed our findings. However, La’Bonic has provided us with test evidence that its product does meet its broad-spectrum protection claim.

Further testing needed

Why the variation in test results?

We were puzzled by the variability between our test results and those of the manufacturers. So we asked John Staton from Dermatest, the lab which conducted our test, about it. He says he isn’t surprised by our findings. “Variability can occur between the lab batches used for determining SPF and the manufactured batches for sale, especially for products containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide where the active ingredients may not be dispersed consistently throughout the product. Also if the grade of zinc changes over time then different SPF and broad spectrum figures could result.”

Dr Kerryn Greive, Scientific Affairs Manager for SunSense, told us SunSense products were produced under Good Manufacturing Practice. Also AMA, the US lab that carried out SunSense's testing, has Food and Drug Administration registration, ISO certification and a GCP compliance letter.

There’s currently no requirement that companies carry out regular testing on their products to confirm they still meet their labelling claims. One of the test certificates we were provided with was dated 2009 – that’s 5 years ago. Transport and storage conditions may also affect a product’s SPF over time. We think companies should be testing their products on a regular basis to make sure different batches are still meeting their label claims.

And who’s testing the testers? Our testing has highlighted major issues in sunscreen testing. For consumers to have faith in sunscreen products, health authorities need to deal with this issue. We’d like to see the standard amended to require annual testing of products and annual auditing of the test laboratory.

Upping the rules

In New Zealand sunscreens are classified as cosmetics – which means they don’t require approval before they can be sold.

Companies are encouraged to market sunscreens that comply with the Australian and New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 2604). But products that meet other standards such as those in the EU or US are also permitted. What’s more, sunscreens that meet no standard at all can legally be sold here.

In Australia sunscreens are regulated as therapeutic products and are required to meet the Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreen products.

In 2012 the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand announced the setting up of the Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Agency. This agency was intended to regulate therapeutic products in both countries and to replace Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration and our Medsafe. So sunscreens sold here would have to comply with the Australian and New Zealand standard.

Disappointingly, last month the two governments announced they’ve stopped trying to establish a joint agency. Our Government says it will upgrade New Zealand’s therapeutic products regulation – and we think making sunscreens a therapeutic product is now a priority.

We say

  • Sunscreens sold here may comply with any of several different standards – or with none at all. This is confusing for consumers. The Government needs to urgently make sunscreens a regulated therapeutic product.
  • Our testing has raised concerns about the variability of sunscreen testing laboratories. This needs to be investigated by Medsafe.
  • Companies should re-test their products regularly.

Test results

Worth considering[rcmd]Products[sort;desc]PricePrice ($)[sort;asc;hidden]Cost per 100g/mlCost per 100g/ml ($)[sort;asc;hidden]Pack (g/ml)SPF (claimed) SPF (tested)Broad-spectrum (tested)
Aloe Up L'il Kids SPF50$2424$20.3420.34118HighModerateAPass
wcBanana Boat Kids Spray SPF50+$2020$8.338.33240Very highVery highPass
wcCancer Society Kids Pure SPF50+$2020$10.0010.00200Very highVery highPass
EVOA Suncream SPF50$5050$100.00100.0050HighHighA,BPartial passD
Green People Organic Children Medium SPF25$4040$26.6726.67150ModerateModerateCFail
Invisible Zinc Junior Clip-on Sunscreen SPF30+$2525$41.6741.6760HighModerateAPass
wcKiwiScreen Kids SPF50+$1515$7.507.50200Very highVery highPass
La'Bonic Natural Sun Block SPF30$2727$54.0054.0050HighHighFailD
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin SPF60+$2323$26.1426.1488Very highModerateAPartial pass
wcNivea Sun Kids Pure & Sensitive SPF50+$1919$9.509.50200Very highVery highPass
SunSense Junior SPF50+$3333$13.2013.20250Very highModerateAPass
Wotnot Natural Sunscreen SPF30+$3535$25.9325.93135HighModerateAPartial pass

GUIDE TO THE TABLE Sunscreens were tested by an accredited laboratory and are listed in alphabetical order. Price is from a November 2014 survey. A = test results supplied to support SPF claim. B = tested SPF was below the label claim of 50. C = tested SPF was below the label claim of 25. D = test results supplied to support broad spectrum claim. SPF claimed and tested Moderate = SPF 15, 20, 25. High = SPF 30, 40, 50. Very high = SPF 50+.

Our test

We bought sunscreens available in supermarkets, pharmacies, health stores and online.

Some had been tested to the US or EU protocols; others complied with the earlier Australian and New Zealand standard (AS/NZS 2604:1998).

Our lab tested the sunscreens following the methods set down in the latest Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 2604:2012. We tested them on that basis so that we could tell you which sunscreens performed better under the same conditions.

14dec organic children promo default

Failed claims

“In-vivo” testing on human volunteers is a crucial component in assessing a sunscreen’s ability to stay on the skin without breaking down.

Green People told us its product had not been tested on human subjects.

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 out to 300 minutes and for SPF50 it would be 500 minutes (see our Graph).

That’s the theory. These times will vary from person to because of skin type, activities (such as heavy exercise or swimming) and how well the sunscreen is applied.

Sun safety tips

Our top tips for keeping safe in the summer sun with sunscreen:

  • 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 1 teaspoonful (5ml) for each arm, each leg, your back, your front and your face (which includes your neck and ears).
  • Mopping up sweat or towelling dry will reduce your protection: apply another coat of sunscreen straightaway.
  • Always reapply every two hours.
  • Don’t use sunscreens that have passed their expiry date as they may have lost their effectiveness.

Remember – a sunscreen is only 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.

For more sun protection information, see www.sunsmart.org.nz.

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.

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.