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.

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