The Truth About New Zealand Sunscreen Brands

It's high time our sunscreen is sorted out; consumers deserve better, clearer protection now

Australian influencer Steph Claire Smith who models for Bondi Sands, uses sunscreens that comply with testing that is mandatory there, but only voluntary here. Picture / Supplied

News late last month that both large and small sunscreen makers had fallen short of their label claims in Consumer tests hasn’t helped public confidence in how best to be sun safe.

But don’t panic: as the Melanoma Society pointed out, a number of brands that had the finger pointed at them still provide good sun protection and you are better off using their sunscreen than binning it if that means going without altogether.

Outright fails are appalling, of course, and underline that a voluntary regime is open to abuse and slackness. A couple of duds in Pure Blend and Pure South were exposed and these tiny natural brands have been pulled from shelves.

The tests themselves are hardly definitive in determining compliance to the Aust/NZ sunscreen standard, however. In all, Consumer scrutinised 19 products, with nine sunscreens given a tick.

Two were forced off shelves and previously compliant Snowberry withdrew its sunscreens to sort out its rating after a formulation with zinc oxide sourced from a new supplier delivered lower protection than expected.

Remaining brands were found to have “conflicting” results.

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Among those identified in this category were big-name companies that have met Therapeutic Goods Administration criteria in Australia, raising questions about test methodology, consistency and frequency.

Plenty of other sunscreens sold here weren’t tested at all.This includes both big brand imports and smaller locally made products, claiming compliance with either the Australasian standard or with European or American standards that we also accept. Plus those that haven’t been submitted for scrutiny under any official standards.

The likely assumption is that a few of these untested brands might have failed scrutiny by Consumer, and rather more might have had “conflicting” results, meaning they have potentially dodged a bullet, while tested brands have taken a blast.

The Cancer Society is rightly embarrassed (but mystified) that its SPF50+ sunscreens clocked in at SPF40 and SPF45. Worth noting is that it still delivers high sun protection because sun protection factors aren’t exponential.

An SPF30 sunscreen isn’t twice the strength of an SPF15, as is sometimes assumed; it’s a measurement of time of protection based on a skin’s propensity to burn.

Used correctly SPF30 filters nearly 97 per cent of UVB, compared with an SPF15 which knocks out 93 per cent or an SPF50 with 98 per cent. (UVA is another matter to measure, but Aust/NZ standard compliant sunscreens should also meet a broad spectrum description. Several Consumer looked at didn’t.)

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The Cancer Society is looking into its result, but stands by its product as providing high protection and is backing Consumer’s call for the Government to introduce mandatory testing.

Nivea points out all its sunscreens have TGA certification. Consumer tested one and found it at SPF45 rather than SPF50, but two independent laboratories in Australia had certified the label claims, hence it falling into the “conflicting” results classification. (In the US, double-testing is recommended.)

This is not an attack on Consumer, we need this vigilant watchdog; would that it was funded to do a more comprehensive job. Its sample testing has underlined why a mandatory regulatory regime, like Australia’s, would be a public service.

New Zealand’s typically laissez-faire approach encompasses being party to the strict Aust/NZ sunscreen standard and accepting products meeting standards in other jurisdictions but within a voluntary regime.

If brands don’t go through these hoops, consumers here may unwittingly be buying a bottle of baloney.

The argument that previous governments and industry lobby groups have used against mandatory testing is largely economic, underpinned by an anti red-tape philosophy.

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We’ve heard similar stuff about food labelling. Yes, it would cost more, especially for small companies to comply — and that needs to be carefully weighed — but as Consumer points out (and the Australians have long accepted) classifying sunscreen as a medical rather than cosmetic product is a persuasive health argument.

It raises the bar on testing requirements and claims. For starters, products under SPF15 would not be allowed to be labelled as sunscreen.

With New Zealand having edged ahead of Australia in the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s highest rates of melanoma per capita, the slip, slap, slop and cover up message is more important than ever.

Do use a sunscreen this summer and let’s hope in years to come we can be assured they all comply with official mandatory testing.

For now, we have Consumer’s snapshot of brands, but be aware there are plenty of other credible brands it didn’t test.

There are also those of dubious rigour, prompting my view that I’d rather be using a sunscreen with a marginal result in Consumer’s test, than something our lax regulatory system has allowed to avoid vetting altogether.

Consumer is right, confused consumers deserve better, clearer protection.

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