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The clue to choosing a sunscreen product is in its labeling as shown in Council survey - CHOICE # 344

  • 2005.06.15

Misleading labels and claims on some of the sunscreen products in the market have come under the scrutiny of the Consumer Council.

This followed a survey of sunscreen products, on the transparency and accuracy of labeling (product claims and usage instructions), and safety information (warnings and cautions).

A crucial piece of information on any sunscreen product concerns its Sun Protection Factor (SPF) value which measures the level of protection it can give.

The survey found among the 21 sunscreen samples their SPF values to range from 4 up to 130. In theory, the higher the SPF the greater the protection.

In the survey, it was revealed that some manufacturers have apparently taken advantage of and to exploit consumers' general awareness and ready recognition of the SPF value as an indication of the product effectiveness.

At least two of the products were found to prominently highlight figure, that has absolutely nothing to do with SPF value, in eye-catching bold print and position on the labels.

In one case, the highlighted figure 140 turned out to be the product model number. Its actual SPF value was 50+, which was buried in small print along with other information on the label.

In the other, the supplier revealed to the Council that the highlighted figure 135 was not exactly a SPF value.

The Council deemed such labeling tactic misleading to the unwary consumers, and called on suppliers concerned to cease and others not to follow suit this highly undesirable practice.

Consumers are advised that, despite the wide variations in SPF values, a sunscreen product with SPF value of 15 is generally adequate for most purposes for protection against ultra-violet radiation from sunlight.

Sunscreen products with high SPF values may not necessarily be better and suitable for children and people with sensitive skin as it may increase the chances of allergic reaction.

Consumers will do well to look for sunscreen products that list out both the SPF and PA (Protection Grade of UVA as favoured by Japanese manufacturers) values, and/or bear the description "broad spectrum protection" which indicate the products should protect the users against both UVA and UVB sun rays.

Equally crucial is information on chemical ingredients of these products. The survey also found wanting in this area of labeling. 

For instance, it was found that some products used such terms as "UV Reflector", "UV Absorber" or "Anti-Sun Element" without disclosing their active ingredients. This kind of information does nothing to inform consumers of the exact chemical nature of the products.

In many countries, e.g. the U.S., Europe and Australia, manufacturers of sunscreen products are required by regulation to list product ingredients, including active ingredients, on the packaging. However, it is not yet mandated in Hong Kong.

Further, some parallel-imported products were labelled essentially in language neither Chinese nor English. This is particularly worrying when the missing information concerns safety warning or caution which is important for the users to be aware of.

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