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Over 80% of Sunscreen Performed Below their Labelled Efficacy Increase the Risks of Skin Darkening, Sunburn or Even Skin Cancer

  • 2020.10.15

The use of effective sunscreen can reduce the harm caused to the skin by ultraviolet rays (UV) and slow down skin aging. The Consumer Council tested 30 models of sunscreen for daily use and over 80% of them were found to perform below their respective labelled efficacy. The measured sunscreen efficacy of 4 models were below SPF15, of which 2 were sunscreen products with very high protection i.e. labelled with SPF50+. Among the 23 models using the “PA System” which is commonly adopted by Asian countries to denote the UVA protection efficacy, only 7 were measured with an UVA Protection Factor (UVAPF) value met with their labelled PA levels. In addition, only 19 models stated the major ingredients on their packaging and consumers may not be able to identify possible allergens as a result. The Council urges manufacturers to critically review their production technology and processes, and to accurately label its product efficacy as well as to provide clear product information and usage guidelines. If consumers engage in outdoor activities for a prolonged period and use sunscreens with insufficient protection will possibly increase their risks of skin darkening or sunburn, and even skin cancer.

 UVA emits from the sun may lead to skin aging, create wrinkles, darken skin colour, and may even induce skin cancer. However, internationally there is no unified system for product labelling of UVA protection, yet “PA System” is commonly adopted by Asian countries. UVB as ultraviolet rays with a higher energy level, can destroy DNA on skin surface, causing sunburn and is one of the main reasons of skin cancer. Currently, the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) index is an internationally recognised system to indicate the level of UVB protection in sunscreen products, the higher the value, the longer the protection offered against UVB.

Among the 30 daily-use sunscreen models tested, their price ranged from $80 to $550, i.e. $0.7 to $16.1 per g/ml, marking a difference of 23 times. 14 of them belonged to high protection and were labelled from SPF30 to SPF50 while the remaining 16 models belonged to very high protection and were labelled as SPF50+. 23 models showed their UVA protection ratings by “PA System”. The test result revealed the second cheapest model ($85) scored the highest 5 points in overall performance but the most expensive model ($550) only rated 3.5 points, indicating once again that there is no correlation between the price and product quality.

Currently, Hong Kong has no legislation or standard in regulating both SPF and UVA efficacy in products. Taking reference to the Cosmetics Regulation in the European Union (EU), this test covered SPF test and UVA protection test, as well as reviewing the labelling of each model.

According to the product labelling requirements of the EU Cosmetics Regulation, SPF labelling on sunscreens must meet 3 criteria, including passing the in vivo test of the related SPF; the measured UVAPF value reaching one-third or above of SPF; and the measured critical wavelength should be 370nm or above. The in vivo SPF test applied a fixed amount of the models on the skin of the back of 10 trial users before they were exposed to UV light. The SPF value of each model was calculated based on the erythema reactions measured on skin surface within 24 hours. Sunscreen labelled with SPF50+ should reach a measured SPF value of 60 or above, whereas products of SPF30 should reach a measured SPF value between 30 to 49.9. For the UVA blocking protection test, the UVA efficacy and the critical wavelength were calculated by detecting the penetration rate of UV light source through the special plastic film simulating human skin after applying the sunscreen models.

SPF test results revealed only 4 sunscreen models labelled with high protection (SPF30 to SPF50) fully complied with the efficacy labelling requirement under the EU Cosmetic Regulation. In the 14 models, 8 were measured with SPF value below their claims in the in vivo test. 1 model labelled as SPF30 had the largest discrepancy with its measured SPF value of only 9.8. Although the SPF values measured in the other 6 models were higher than or equal to their claims, the UVAPF value in 2 of them were only 8.0 and 4.0 respectively, failing to meet the requirement that UVAPF value need to be one-third of its SPF, and were therefore not in compliance with the labelling requirements of the EU.

In the 16 models labelled with very high protection (SPF50+), only 1 fully complied with the EU requirement. The measured SPF value in 14 of them were below SPF60, of which the lowest performing 2 were recorded with a measured value of just 11.7 and 14.3 respectively. The 2 models with the highest SPF values reached 87.2 and 61.7 respectively, but the UVAPF and critical wavelength of 1 of them could not meet the relevant criteria.

Unlike UVB, there is no unified international system for labelling UVA protection efficacy in products. The Council thus rated such efficacy of all models by converting the UVAPF values measured into the “PA system” which is commonly adopted by Asian countries. All 30 tested models were detected with different degrees of UVA protection with the measured UVAPF values ranging between 3.3 to 67.3, whereas UVAPF values of 9 of them were above 16, which were roughly the highest level in the PA system (i.e. PA++++) while another 10 models were rated at PA+++.

As for product labelling, 6 models listed their ingredients in Japanese only and general consumers may not be able to identify possible allergens or apply the products correctly. Suggested usage quantity cannot be found in 21 models. If consumers apply insufficient amount of sunscreens, they may incur the risk of inadequate protection. Moreover, 3 models were not marked with any expiry date. The Council urges manufacturers to improve product labelling. On the other hand, the Council reminds that some sunscreen products may have high water content level, once the product has reached the expiry date, preservative may lose its effectiveness, and this could accelerate bacterial and microbial growth. These products should be used up well before the expiry date after opening.

Consumers should try to avoid exposing their skin under direct sunlight to minimise the harm to the skin caused by UV radiation. When purchasing and using sunscreens, consumers need to be aware of the following:

In selecting sunscreen products, read the labels carefully to check the presence of allergens. Consumers with skin allergies or eczema should consider sunscreens with physical filters to reduce the risk of allergy;

  • Sunscreens of physical filters are relatively mild and less likely to cause allergy but are relatively whiter in colour and more viscous in texture, thus it is harder to be applied evenly. While those with chemical filters are thinner and give a lighter feeling after application, they may pose a greater risk in skin and eyes irritation, thus resulting in allergy more easily;
  • Sunscreens with SPF50 are basically adequate in providing 98% protection to the skin while those with a larger SPF value may instead clog up pores or cause skin allergy. Thus, for normal use, it is not necessary to look for sunscreen products with a very high SPF value;
  • Make reference to the UV index announced by the Hong Kong Observatory before going out for outdoor activities, and choose appropriate sunscreens according to the UV index, type and duration of their activities;
  • Apply sunscreen according to the product label, normally it is around 1 teaspoon for face and should be re-applied every 2 to 3 hours to ensure sufficient protection to the skin;
  • Sunscreen should be cleansed by make-up remover or facial cleanser according to the packaging instruction to prevent any residue from affecting skin’s health;
  • Pay attention to the product expiry date, disposal is necessary if the product is expired to avoid the risks of microbial growth upon contact with air or skin.

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