Popular sunscreens failing to live up to sun protection claims, Which? reveals

Popular sunscreens – including a leading children’s sun lotion – are failing to meet their SPF and UVA claims in Which? tests.

As people head out to enjoy the great outdoors this summer, it is important for everyone, especially children whose skin is more sensitive than adult skin, to protect their skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays that could lead to skin damage and cause skin cancer. But worryingly, Which? tests of high street sunscreens found some big brand products that did not live up to their claims.

The consumer champion tested 15 branded and own-label sunscreens, including 11 SPF30 adult products and four SPF50 kids sun creams, assessing their SPF and UVA performance, as well as how easy they were to apply.

While most passed Which?’s tests, two products – Garnier’s Ambre Solaire Clear Protect Spray SPF30 (£7) and Nivea’s Kids Protect & Care SPF50+ Spray (£6) – both failed at least one key protection test and have been labelled Which? “Don’t Buy” products.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which shows how much a product protects against UVB rays, is one of the most important considerations when buying sunscreen, especially for young children who tend to have more sensitive skin compared to adults.

Shockingly, Nivea’s Kids Protect & Care SPF50+ failed Which?’s SPF test, falling far short of the SPF50 claim on the bottle. A further test on a second sample found the measured SPF was even lower.

In addition to SPF, consumers should also pay attention to the protection sunscreens provide against UVA rays, which can lead to premature ageing along with skin cancer. This is usually indicated with a UVA seal – a circle with ‘UVA’ inside it – which shows that it meets the EU recommendations for UVA sun protection, or the Boots UVA star rating system used to indicate a higher level of UVA protection.

Although it passed the SPF test, Garnier’s Ambre Solaire Clear Protect Spray SPF30 failed Which?’s UVA tests twice. While the results were close to the minimum required for it to pass, it did not quite make the grade.

Thirteen other own-label and branded sunscreen products passed all Which? tests, including Asda’s Protect Cooling Clear Sun Mist SPF 30 (£3.50) and Boots Soltan Kids Protect & Moisturise Suncare Lotion SPF50+(£4) which were among the cheapest of all the products.

Harry Rose, Which? Magazine Editor, said:

“Whether you’re finally off on holiday or staying at home this summer, it’s important to stock up on sunscreen to keep your skin protected from harmful rays. But our research shows consumers cannot always trust that these essential products will provide the level of protection they expect for themselves and their children.

“It is concerning that two sunscreens from respected brands have failed Which?’s tests. We would advise consumers not to buy these products as there are alternatives available that are both cheaper and performed better when we tested them.”

Notes to editor

Which? put 15 branded and own-label sunscreens through British Standard tests (BS EN ISO 24444:2020 and BS EN ISO 24443:2012) to check that each product has the SPF that it claims and that it has sufficient UVA protection. The EU recommendation for UVA protection calls for sun creams to offer a UVA protection factor that is at least a third of its SPF, so this is what we expect products which claim to protect against UVA to meet.

To test SPF, a UVB lamp is shone on sunscreen applied to volunteers’ backs and researchers record when skin reddens and compare the smallest amount of UVB required with and without the sunscreen. The difference between the two is used to calculate the SPF. This tested on a minimum of 10 people. To test UVA protection, a thin film of sunscreen is spread on a rough glass plate and it is placed in the light-path of a UV spectrophotometer (a machine that measures light) to measure the UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen. To pass the test this needs to be a minimum of one-third of the SPF. For more information on how Which? tests sunscreen, click here: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/sun-creams/article/how-we-test-sun-creams-a1AcM2l6WYPh

Full list of sun creams tested by Which?:

For more information on buying and using sunscreens and to find out our four recommended Best Buys sun creams for 2021 (based on passing SPF and UVA tests and high scores from our test panel for ease of application), including the best option for kids, head to www.which.co.uk/reviews/sun-creams or here https://www.which.co.uk/news/2021/06/popular-adults-and-kids-sun-creams-fail-which-sun-protection-tests/ 

Video available for use: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWex_HdnfmA

Five things you need to know about staying safe in the sun

  • The World Health Organization recommends using 35ml of sunscreen to cover the whole body; this is about seven teaspoons’ worth. It’s best to apply to all exposed areas 15 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours, especially after swimming or other outdoor physical activity.
  • UVA and UVB are both types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and have been linked to skin cancer. UVB is the main cause of sunburn, while UVA can cause premature skin ageing. UVB rays are blocked by glass, but UVA can penetrate that and clouds.
  • The sun protection factor (SPF) shows how much protection sunscreen provides against UVB radiation. It indicates how much longer skin covered with the sunscreen takes to redden compared with unprotected skin.
  • When buying sunscreen, NHS recommends choosing a product with at least 4-star UVA protection indicated on the label.
  • For children, buying an SPF 50+ sun cream is important, but buying a decent sunscreen is only one part of keeping them safe in the sun. Getting kids to wear a wide-brimmed hat – to protect their neck and ears – and covering up with a T-shirt or an SPF sun suit while outdoors helps. Wearing sunglasses and avoiding the hottest part of the day are both advisable things to do. Babies should always be kept out of the sun.

It is recommended you wear sunscreen when the UV index hits three, the below map shows how often this happened around the country in 2020.

Rights of reply:

A L’Oreal (makers of Garnier Ambre Solaire) spokesperson said it disputes Which?’s findings. It has run independent tests of the UVA properties of the product which show that it passes the tests, complies with all applicable standards and provides proper sun protection for consumers.

It also said: “Garnier Ambre Solaire has been the expert at suncare innovation for over 85 years and is the only suncare brand with research recognised by the British Skin Foundation. We take product efficacy very seriously. Our UVA claims are supported by robust photoprotection testing carried out independently under ISO standard ISO 24443:2012 and meet the requirements of the European Recommendation for sun protection products. Given this, we are very surprised by the Which? results and have requested a meeting with the Which? researchers so our scientists can take them through our test results which confirm the efficacy of this product.”

A Beiersdorf (makers of Nivea) spokesperson said: “The safety of our products is of utmost importance. Nivea Sun prides itself on its decades of experience in sun care and is dedicated to developing products that reliably and effectively protect against sun damage. When this product was independently tested in 2019 it achieved an SPF of 62. When we re-checked this batch, the result was a UVA protection factor of 25.8. Based on this data and our comprehensive quality requirements, we disagree with the reported Which? findings.”

About Which?
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at endorsementscheme@which.co.uk.

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