Sunscreen Standards Have Changed. Here’s What An Industry Insider Wishes You Knew About UV Protection

By Ashleigh Cometti
Should we really be worried if our sunscreen is reef-friendly? Chemical-based? This is what one brand founder turned industry insider has to say about it. Photo / Stocksy

New regulations around sunscreen safety in Aotearoa can only mean positive things for the industry from now on.

This time last year, we published a story about a new bill which required all sunscreens to adhere to sunscreen product safety standards in order to be sold in both

After its third hearing on March 2, 2022, the bill was passed by Parliament six days later — establishing the Sunscreen (Product Safety Standard) Act, which came into effect on September 8, 2022.

A year-long transition period meant that sunscreen manufactured or imported into the country before March 8, 2022, could be supplied up until September 8, 2023.

This means that as of right now, it’s illegal to manufacture or import sunscreen that doesn’t comply with these new safety standards.

The new law, which is regulated under the Fair Trading Act 1986, requires all primary sunscreens and insect repellants SPF4 or higher, to undergo consistent and regular testing processes to ensure product efficacy, alongside clear guidelines regarding the SPF label and instructions on how to apply the product.

A primary sunscreen is a product with the main purpose of providing SPF protection. A secondary sunscreen includes products like a tinted moisturiser with SPF, because its primary purpose is to moisture, tint, or provide colour, while SPF protection is secondary.

Failure to comply by printing misleading claims on product labels can result in brands receiving fines of up to $600,000.

Before the law change, brands were trusted (not mandated) to align with the Australian/New Zealand sunscreen standard (AS/NZS 2604:2012) — which offered very little consumer protection.

For Martha van Arts, general manager of Cosmetics New Zealand, the new law will ensure the industry is well regulated. The sun safety advocate, who founded waterless sunscreen brand Skinnies alongside husband Olly in 2010, says it’s an exciting shift for the industry.

Cosmetics New Zealand, an incorporated industry body which represents many sunscreen brands, has been advocating for this change for a long time. “We’ve been actively involved in the committee for developing that safety standard, which has always been adhered to by Cosmetics New Zealand members,” Martha says.

Martha says this blanket rule has now meant all sunscreens available in Aotearoa have been reviewed by the Commerce Commission to ensure compliance.

“Over the past year, we’ve seen the Commerce Commission check every single sunscreen on the market in New Zealand on its claims, wording and ingredients list,” Martha says. “If you make a claim, you have to back it up.”

It took the Commerce Commission 12 months to survey individual sunscreen products from 60 companies — from big corporates to small start-ups.

The Commerce Commission worked with certified labs that use the same testing methods established in laboratories in Germany and Australia to see how sunscreens stacked up.

When it comes to testing sunscreen performance, Martha explains that wavelength readings are taken on human skin before sunscreen application, after application with UV light applied, and the following day to measure the UV levels. For water resistance, the test subject sits in a spa pool heated to 28C for four hours to measure how well the sunscreen lasts on submerged skin (also known as its substantivity).

It’s a long, lengthy process — one which requires brands to pay approximately $10,000 per product, and each test is repeated 10 times.

Across the Tasman, sunscreen is categorised as a therapeutic good, and can be sold in Australia only if they are listed on the TGA Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). But the Sunscreen Act means all sunscreens across Australasia are being tested using the same standard — meaning the only difference between them is a jump in price.

“Sunscreens are far cheaper here than they are in Australia,” Martha says. “And as the SPF goes up, the price goes up, too. Sunscreen should be twice the price that it is given all the regulation and testing behind it.”

The new law negates the need for watchdog publications like Consumer NZ to conduct their own testing and call out brands as they have in previous years.

“I’ve had a personal relationship with Consumer magazine, first as a brand, and now representing the industry. We’ve since had a very collaborative conversation about what sunscreen regulation looks like,” Martha says.

Shoppers are now provided with a new level of assurance that what they’re purchasing will do exactly what it says it’ll do — whether they’ve read Consumer’s annual report or not.

“Now we’ve got the Sunscreen Act, the safety standard and the Commerce Commission have reviewed everything, it’ll be interesting to see what they’ve [Consumer] got to say this year,” she says.

At a minimum, Martha says the best sunscreens available are rated SPF30, provide broad-spectrum protection and are water resistant for up to four hours.

“Sunscreens should be at least SPF30 because as the SPF goes up, the efficacy flattens out. There’s a boost from SPF15 to SPF30, but then it flattens out from SPF30 to SPF50. SPF30 provides 96 per cent protection, while SPF50 gives 97.5 per cent protection,” Martha says. “They should also offer broad-spectrum protection to protect your skin from a) being burnt and b) cancer-causing DNA.”

Equally important is how much you’re using. Martha refers to a video she worked on with her husband that showed exactly how much sunscreen you should be applying and where.

“Whenever I put sunscreen on, that’s what I think about. How am I making sure that I’m covering everything,” she says. “The regulations say you need to do 1tsp for each limb.”

Where most sunscreens are 50 to 70 per cent water, which evaporates before leaving a film on skin, Martha and Olly set out to formulate a sunscreen that was completely waterless, meaning you could use less product and still achieve the same level of protection.

But this is where it gets juicy. In previous years, we’ve written about the difference between chemical and physical sunscreen, and why it’s important to select a sunscreen that’s reef-safe. However, according to Martha, neither of those things matter much at all.

“I’ve read the research papers. There’s research where your mineral (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) absorbs UV rays exactly the same as chemical filters,” she says.

Similarly, Martha says a number of ingredients contained within sunscreen are toxic to marine life, not just demonised oxybenzone.

An article published by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History revealed that nothing is truly reef-safe, propelled forward by our growing knowledge of sunscreen toxicity.

“Even mineral sunscreens have additives and coatings, and many now use nanosized mineral particles to decrease the white hue left on the skin when applied. Any of these changes may alter the toxicity of a mineral sunscreen,” it reads.

A self-proclaimed staunch Greenie, Martha says sunscreen is 200th on the list of things that are most damaging to the coral reef and marine life.

“It’s a diversion from reality,” she says, adding the best chance the corals have of surviving is to slow the progress of climate change. “There are other things we can be doing to save the reefs, like driving our cars less or eating less meat.”

Ultimately, Martha’s best advice when it comes to selecting the right sunscreen is simple: buy the one you’ll actually use. She warns of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure and says being sun smart goes even further than slip, slop slap.

“It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you use it,” she says. “Put a hat on, sunglasses on, wear a T-shirt and sit in the shade. Sunscreen is only part of sun safety.”

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