sunscreen products

Sunscreens

Our latest test of 20 sunscreens found 2 “natural” products only gave low sun protection. Another had to be pulled from the market because it failed to provide the high protection it claimed. In a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, how do you know you can trust a sunscreen delivers on its claims?

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In summer, it’s important to slap on sunscreen to reduce UV radiation damaging your skin. The sun exposes you to 2 types of UV rays:

  • 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.

We tested the sunscreens against 2 aspects of the Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreens:

  • a sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor), which measures protection against UVB rays.
  • its broad-spectrum protection (against UVA and UVB rays).

The standard requires SPF to be assessed using a test panel of 10 volunteers. Testing on humans determines a sunscreen’s ability to provide adequate protection and stay on the skin without breaking down. To assess UVA protection our lab uses a spectrophotometer to measure UVA radiation passing through a thin film of sunscreen on a plate (see “Our test and results”).

The standard is mandatory in Australia, but voluntary in New Zealand 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.

Off the market

Marketed as natural products, Pure Blend Sunscreen SPF15++ and Pure South 100% Natural Sunscreen only provided low sun protection (SPF of 4 to 14) in our test.

Despite claiming an SPF of 15++, Pure Blend had an SPF of 4. Pure South had an SPF of 5. Although it didn’t claim an SPF rating, Pure South listed the SPF range of one of its ingredients – raspberry oil – as 28 to 50.

A third product, Snowberry Family+ Sunscreen SPF30, had an SPF of 20 (moderate protection) and also failed one of the broad-spectrum requirements.

We sent our results to the companies and asked what evidence they had to support their claims.

What they said

Pure Blend said its product had not been tested on humans and couldn’t substantiate its SPF claim. The manufacturer has stopped selling this product.

Pure South provided a test report with one human test (the standard requires a 10-person test). It has agreed to stop selling this product as a sunscreen and has removed the reference to raspberry oil’s SPF, which it could not substantiate.

Snowberry hadn’t conducted testing on the Family+ sunscreen we tested. Its claimed SPF was based on certified test results for a similar Snowberry product. Snowberry attributed the reduced SPF to a new source of zinc oxide, which is not performing to specification. It has recalled the Family+ product and other sunscreens using the same zinc supply until the products have been retested. Snowberry says its broad-spectrum claim is based on the UK Boots Star Rating system. The company provided a test certificate showing it got a rating of 3 (out of 5) stars under this system.

Up to standard

Nine sunscreens in our test met their SPF label claim and the requirements for broad-spectrum protection (see our table and test results). They ranged in price from $5.60 per 100ml (Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ from The Warehouse) to $43.69 per 100ml (Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen SPF30+).

Oasis Sun Sensitive Skin Family Sunscreen SPF30 met its SPF claim but failed our broad-spectrum test. It doesn’t claim to be broad-spectrum but how well a product protects you from UVA rays is just as important as its SPF. The manufacturer told us this product was being reformulated and was undergoing testing to ensure it provided broad-spectrum protection.

Daylong Suntivity Liposomal Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ passed our tests but it claims to provide up to 8 hours’ protection from one application. You should ignore “once-a-day” claims on sunscreens because they can mislead you into thinking sunscreen doesn’t need to be regularly applied. These once-a-day claims are banned in Australia.

Conflicting results

Seven other products didn’t meet the SPF claimed on their label and when we asked for evidence we got a mixed response.

The distributors of Badger, Banana Boat and Natural Instinct provided us with test results from US labs showing their products had been tested on 10 human subjects and met their claimed SPF.

Beiersdorf, which distributes Nivea, gave us results from 2 different labs for tests undertaken in 2015 and 2017, which both supported its SPF50+ label claim. The 2015 report was from the lab we used. We asked Beiersdorf for permission to re-test the sample it tested in 2015, but it declined.

The Cancer Society and Sungard products claimed an SPF of 50+ but the samples we sent to the lab had an SPF of 40 and 45, respectively. This rating means the products still provide high protection. However, to carry an SPF50+ claim, tested SPF must be 60 or higher.

The companies based their SPF claims on test results for similar but not identical products. Technical reports they provided concluded the formulations we tested should comply with requirements for a sunscreen with an SPF50+ label claim.

The products tested by the companies contained benzophenone-3, which their technical reports stated was a weak UVB filter and its removal shouldn’t affect SPF.

Our tests of 2 batches of SunSense Ultra SPF50+ found it only provided moderate protection – not the very high protection it claimed. In response to our findings, SunSense provided results of its own tests carried out in 2016. The company said the tests, from US company AMA laboratories, showed the product met its SPF50+ claim.

Time after time

This isn’t the first time we’ve found differences between our test results and the manufacturers’. Consumer organisations in Australia, the UK and US report similar findings. When Consumer Reports in the US tested sunscreens this year, it found 23 (out of 62 products) tested at less than half their label SPF.

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, as we found in the case of Snowberry.
  • 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.

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.

What’s in them?

Sunscreens can be broadly divided into 2 groups – physical blockers or chemical absorbers.

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.

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.

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 (EC) has concluded that the available information suggests zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles can be considered safe for use on the skin as sunscreens. However, the EC does note that the evaluation of the impact of nanoparticles on human health is an “on-going process”.

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

Chemical absorbers (such as octocrylene 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.

Some people choose to avoid certain chemical absorbers, such as oxybenzone and homosalate, 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.

Sunscreen irritation

Some people find chemical sunscreens irritating. This may be due to sensitive skin or a reaction to one of the ingredients – a chemical, preservative or fragrance.

One product – Banana Boat Everyday SPF50+ – contained the preservative methylisothiazolinone (MIT). Although it’s approved in New Zealand for use in cosmetics, a review by the European Commission’s (EC) Consumer Safety Committee said its use in cosmetics and sunscreens had been associated with allergic reactions and contact dermatitis. Reactions had also been seen in young children. The EC no longer considers this preservative safe at European permitted levels. Banana Boat told us it no longer uses MIT in sunscreens sold in New Zealand.

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.

For the active ingredients and preservatives, see our table.

Our test and results

Our accredited lab tested the sunscreens following the methods in the Australian and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 2604:2012.

SPF testing

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

Our samples were sent “blind” to the lab and packed according to its instructions. The Cancer Society raised concerns about this method. We stand by our process.

Products[width=20%]Products[sort;desc;hidden][width=20%]Cost per 100g/ml[width=8%]Cost per 100g/ml[sort;asc;hidden]SPF test results[width=11%]SPF protection[width=8%]Broad spectrum[width=8%]Preservatives[width=15%]Actives[width=32%]
Cetaphil Suntivity Oily Skin Ultra-light Lotion SPF50+ Cetaphil Suntivity Oily Skin Ultra-light Lotion SPF50+ $35.9935.99Meets claimVery highPassNot statedOctyl methoxycinnamate 10%
Diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate 7.5%
Bemotrizinol 5%
Titanium dioxide 4.2%
Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethyl-butylphenol 10%
Octyl triazone 10%

Daylong Suntivity Liposomal Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+Daylong Suntivity Liposomal Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+$25.9925.99Meets claimVery highPassNot statedBemotrizinol 4%
Diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate 5%
Octyl triazone 3%
Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol 3%
Octyl methoxycinnamate 5%
Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+Smart365 Sun Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+$5.605.6Meets claimVery highPassPhenoxyethanolOctocrylene 8%
4-Methylbenzylidene camphor 4%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4%
Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid 3.5%
Oxybenzone 3%
Invisible Zinc Face + Body Sunscreen SPF50Invisible Zinc Face + Body Sunscreen SPF50$25.3325.33Meets claimHighPassPhenoxyethanol
Caprylyl glycol
1,2-Hexanediol
Zinc oxide 25%
Neutrogena Beach Defense Sunscreen SPF50Neutrogena Beach Defense Sunscreen SPF50$12.6212.62Meets claimHighPassBenzyl alcohol
Chlorophenesin
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 3%
Homosalate 10%
Octyle salicylate 5%
Octocrylene 4.5%
Oxybenzone 4%


Surf Life Saving Sunscreen Lotion SPF50 Surf Life Saving Sunscreen Lotion SPF50 $8.508.5Meets claimHighPassPhenoxyethanolOctocrylene 10%
4-Methylbenzylidene camphor 4%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4%
Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid 4%
Le Tan Coconut Oil Sunscreen SPF30+Le Tan Coconut Oil Sunscreen SPF30+$12.7912.79Meets claimHighPassPropyl HydroxybenzoateOctyl methoxycinnamate 7%
4-Methylbenzylidene camphor 4%
Octocrylene 4%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4.5%
Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen SPF30+Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen SPF30+$43.6943.69Meets claimHighPassNo synthetic preservativesZinc oxide 22.3%
Oasis Sun Sensitive Skin Family Sunscreen SPF30Oasis Sun Sensitive Skin Family Sunscreen SPF30$15.9615.96Meets claimHighFailDehydroacetic acid
Benzyl alcohol

Zinc oxide
Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamic
Skinnies Sungel SPF30Skinnies Sungel SPF30$34.9934.99Meets claimHighPassNo preservativesAvobenzone 3%
Bemotrizinol 3%
Octocrylene 4.5%
Oxybenzone 5%
TItanium dioxide
Nivea Sun Protect & Moisture Moisturising Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+Nivea Sun Protect & Moisture Moisturising Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+$13.3813.3845AHighPassPhenoxyethanol
Chlorphenesin
Homosalate 13%
Octocrylene 5%
Octyl salicylate 5%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4.5%
Bemotrizinol 5%
Sungard Moisturising Sunscreen SPF50+Sungard Moisturising Sunscreen SPF50+$4.584.5845HighPassNot statedHomosalate 10%
Octyl salicylate 5%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4%
Octocrylene 8%
Banana Boat EveryDay SPF50+Banana Boat EveryDay SPF50+$8.808.841AHighPassMethylisothiazolinone
Phenoxyethanol
Homosalate 10%
Octocrylene 8%
Octyl salicylate 5%
Butyl methoxydibensoylmethane 4%
Oxybenzone 2%
Cancer Society Everyday SPF50+Cancer Society Everyday SPF50+$13.001340HighPassOctanohydroxamic acid
Caprylyl glycol
Glycerin
Homosalate 10%
Octyle salicylate 5%
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane 4%
Octocrylene 8%

Natural Instinct Invisible Natural Sunscreen SPF30Natural Instinct Invisible Natural Sunscreen SPF30$19.9519.9527AModeratePassNot statedZinc oxide 22%
SunSense Ultra SPF50+SunSense Ultra SPF50+$7.207.221AModeratePassHydroxybenzoates
Phenoxyethanol
Bemotrizinol 1%
Octocrylene 2%
Diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate 3.5%
Titanium dioxide 2%
Snowberry Family+ Sunscreen SPF30Snowberry Family+ Sunscreen SPF30$31.2031.220ModerateFailBNot statedZinc oxide 24.5%
Badger Active Unscented Broad Spectrum Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Cream SPF30Badger Active Unscented Broad Spectrum Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Cream SPF30$32.0732.0718AModeratePassNot statedNon-nano uncoated zinc oxide 18.75%
Pure South 100% Natural SunscreenPure South 100% Natural Sunscreen$20.2520.255LowPassNot statedCalcium bentonite
Raspberry oil
Sesame oil
Zinc
Pure Blend Sunscreen SPF15++Pure Blend Sunscreen SPF15++$13.00134LowNot testedCNot statedZinc oxide

GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are listed by SPF in alphabetical order. PRICE is from a November 2017 survey based on the pack size we bought. TEST RESULTS Tested SPF Atest results for this product were supplied to support SPF claim. SPF protection Low = SPF 4-14. Moderate = SPF 15-29. High = SPF 30-50. Very high = SPF 50+. Broad spectrum Bfailed critical wavelength requirement. Cproduct’s average SPF rating meant it would not be classified as a sunscreen under the standard therefore we did not test its broad spectrum protection.

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 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.
  • Ignore “once-a-day” claims. Sunscreen should be reapplied often – every two hours you’re in the sun.
  • 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. 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, a hat and sunglasses.

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