For years, Australians all over the country have repeated the glorious motto of summer.
Slip, Slop, Slap encourages us to cover up and wear sunscreen to protect ourselves, and our families from the harmful rays of the sun.
But it turns out we might not have been as protected as we thought.
Consumer advocacy group CHOICE decided to test a small sample of sunscreens from a number of well known brands. They were surprised to find that of the six products they tested, only two matched the protection that they claimed to offer on the label.
The Importance of Sunscreen
In Australia, sunscreen is an essential part of our lives. We have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and sunscreen in Australia is regulated as a medicine and not a cosmetic. This means that they have to be tested according to the Australian Standard to ensure they meet their advertised sun protection factor (SPF) before being sold.
CHOICE was recently tipped off that some of the products on the market do not contain enough active ingredients to meet those SPF 50+ claims. So, despite recommending in the past that sunscreen sold in Australia would be fine, they put the sunscreens to the test.
CHOICE tested six Australian sunscreen products to the Australian Standard, spanning general purpose, sports and children’s targeted varieties. Of the six products tested, only the Cancer Council’s Classic SPF 50+ and the Nivea Sun Kids SPF 50+ (roll on) met their advertised claims. In fact both of these sunscreens rated over SPF 60, which is the minimum requirement to advertise an SPF 50+ claim.
The ones that failed the test were Banana Boat Baby SPF 50+ (finger spray) and Banana Boat Sport 50+ (tube) both with a factor of 42, Ombra (ALDI) Kids SPF 50+ (roll on) with a factor of 36, and Ego SunSense Sport 50+ with a factor of just 29.
What The Manufacturers Had To Say
Not surprisingly the manufacturers of the sunscreens were not happy to hear about CHOICE’s findings. Some of them disputed the results, showing their test certificates that proved their product met the SPF claims on the label. The ALDI spokesperson informed CHOICE that they were investigating the claims with their supplier.
In the interests of transparency, CHOICE investigated why they might have come up with different results from their test. They found three reasons why this might be the case:
- Prototype + Post Production Products: Sunscreens are tested at the research and development stage, not when the product is in production. It might be years between the initial R&D tests and a retest of an established product.
- Batch Consistency: CHOICE only tested one batch from each product, so it might be possible that they encountered a bad batch, just as consumers might. However, it is equally possible that the manufacturers, who also often test just one batch, may have tested an unusually good batch.
- Bad Storage: Sunscreens aren’t timeless, they break down over time. This is particularly true if they’re stored in hot places. Manufacturers have the ability to test fresh products, while CHOICE tested ones that consumers would buy, which may have been improperly stored.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) who list and regulate sunscreens said in a statement to CHOICE that these reasons should not cause the vast differences in SPF. Their spokesperson informed CHOICE that when a batch is sent for testing it should be indicative of the final product going to consumers, and the SPF characteristics of the test batch and the consumer sized batch should not differ.
On further examination, CHOICE uncovered that lab testing is remarkably different for each sunscreen, and various studies in the past have shown that labs deliver vastly different, and often biased results. It seems clear that labs are either not testing to the same standards in each case, or able to be influenced by outside sources.
A Sunscreen Failure
It might seem like a numbers game, but CHOICE’s findings make it clear that not all SPF 50+products deserve the same level of praise. Some obviously protect the consumer better than others, and CHOICE recommends only those sunscreens that performed as labelled in their lab tests.
Of course, any sunscreen that tested over SPF 30 will give the user a ‘high’ level of UV protection for at least five hours. But the risk of burning is much higher with these products than with those that really are SPF 50+.
In the conclusion to their findings, CHOICE noted that they were very concerned about the lack of consistency between the results, particularly as standardised testing is supposedly in place. They conclude, and we agree, that products should meet the claims they advertise in the lab at any time, including after they’ve hit the shelves and are supposed to be protecting Australians from the sun.