If you saw a sunscreen that was marked ‘SPF30’ and one that was ‘SPF30+’, which do you think would be the better sunscreen? Asking yourself whether that’s a trick question, you’d be correct, strangely, it’s the SPF30.
I don’t intend to cause a panic with this statement, they’re both providing 30x more protection than unprotected skin, but the devil is in the detail. Before I go any further and to avoid confusion, I want to be clear that the ‘+’ in SPF50+ sunscreen is unrelated to the faults i’ll be discussing here, SPF50+ are the ‘superior’ sunscreens, if you see SPF50 alongside SPF50+, the ‘+’ is the better option and I’ll explain that in more detail later.
The difference between the ‘+’ and the ‘plus-less’ for SPF30 sunscreens is not in whether one offers more SPF than the other. The difference is in which has more UVA protection and is impossible for the average consumer to know, in fact, it’s counter intuitive, consumers are being encouraged to buy the inferior sunscreen by association that ‘+’ is better than ‘plus-less’, which is a little disturbing.
Realising we’re all time poor and save you some time, SPF30+ sunscreen has as low as 1/3 of the protection from UVA radiation (the radiation responsible for causing premature ageing and skin cancer) than an SPF30. Confused? Read on….
A radiation recap
To back track slightly, SPF is a measurement of protection against UVB radiation, those UV wavelengths that cause sunburn. UVA radiation are those wavelengths that cause skin pigmentation and are associated with skin cancers. The amount of sunburn protection is recognisable by the SPF value where SPF30 sunscreen will allow a person to spend 30x more time in the sun before they start to burn. The amount of UVA protection is far less obvious and is communicated by whether ‘broad-spectrum’ is claimed, generally SPF30/SPF30+ products both claim broad-spectrum.
All sunscreen sold in Australia are required to comply with the Australian/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 2604) and have been for quite some time. In 2012 there was an update to the previous standard that had been in place since 1998 and this is where the confusion began. There is no question that the 2012 standard was a leap forward, it took the maximum claimable SPF from 30+ to 50+ (actually SPF60), so doubled the maximum protection, it also took a much better approach to how UVA protection was measured and what was required to claim ‘broad-spectrum’.
How is/was UVA protection determined?
In 1998, UVA performance was being tested using a number of different methods, one of which included dissolving sunscreen in a solvent and analysing it with a spectrophotometer, a tool typically reserved for the analysis of raw materials in industry. These methods bore no similarity to how we use sunscreen, it wasn’t applied to skin and wasn’t then exposed to the sun where bad sunscreens often start to fail. The test methods used prior to 2012 were inappropriate and ultimately inaccurate.
In 2012, the test became far more advanced, sunscreen was applied to a skin like substance and then placed in a solar simulator where the sunscreen is exposed to UV radiation, simulating actual sun which can cause degradation of the sunscreen. The sunscreen was then tested using a Labsphere sunscreen analyser, the results from the Labsphere are then processed and weighted against the SPF that was measured from human testing to calculate the UVA-PF. Whilst the new test is still technically ‘in-vitro’, it uses an in-vivo test as its basis, saving having to test on people more than necessary, risking the health of the test subjects.
To claim ‘broad-spectrum’ in 2012 and beyond, a sunscreen was required to have a UVA-PF of at least one third of the claimed SPF, for an SPF30 sunscreen, it needed a UVA-PF of at least 10. The 1998 requirement didn’t use UVA-PF as the basis of figuring out whether it was broad-spectrum, this combined with the different test methods means that 1998 sunscreens may not pass 2012 requirements.
To figure out how they compare, we need to test sunscreens that comply with the 1998 requirement using the 2012 methods. The below graph illustrates how these vary. I have included SPF50+ to highlight the huge improvement in UVA-PF for SPF50+ sunscreens as compared to the old SPF30+ sunscreens.
How did this happen?
Unfortunately, some time around 2012, a decision was made that any sunscreen already in the market that complied to the 1998 requirements could continue to be sold indefinitely. This allowance applied only to existing sunscreens that were already listed with the TGA, any new sunscreens had to comply with the 2012 requirements.
I recall a justification for this around 2012 with an expectation that market forces would result in the 1998 compliant sunscreens drifting off shelves. Unfortunately, it’s been 5 years and the Australian public continues to have access to subpar sunscreens with no end in sight, we have all been let down somewhat by the government department that was supposed to be looking out for our health and wellbeing.
From a consumer perspective, I can understand the decision from a ‘cosmetic’ standpoint, where a consumer buys a foundation with SPF30+ for example, the primary purpose of the product is as to colour the skin and not to prevent sun-damage. I can appreciate that it would be difficult and also expensive for some brands to change their range of SPF15 lipsticks to comply with the new requirement.
On the flip-side, for a ‘therapeutic’ sunscreen, where the primary purpose is to prevent sun related damage, the consumer should be provided some assurances that the sunscreen they’re buying is of the highest standard.
Are SPF30+ sunscreens bad?
Not all sunscreens are created equally, there may well be some SPF30+ sunscreens that may comply with current requirements and just haven’t been tested to confirm. Mineral sunscreen particularly could be expected to comply as minerals including Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide aren’t photo-unstable, others using more advanced sunscreen filters or effective combinations of filters are also likely to be OK. Photo-instability (i.e. a sunscreen that is photo-unstable) refers to the issue of a sunscreen degrading and a loss of performance during exposure to the sun.
Sunscreens that combine Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane and Octyl Methoxycinnamate are notoriously photo-unstable and since 2012, formulators have been forced to find alternate combinations, if you see these on your SPF30+ sunscreen, use with caution,
Making an informed decision
Some brands will identify whether they comply with the 1998 or the 2012 requirement on the back of the pack, it is not a legal requirement to declare which standard a sunscreen was tested to, so it’s not cut and dry, but can be an easy way to know whether you’re buying the best SPF30 sunscreen. Cancer Council is one example of a brand that will include a remark on which standard the product complies.
To be clear, if the sunscreen is an SPF50+ or if it’s claiming 30 (no ‘+’) it complies to the 2012 requirement and is a better sunscreen, if its SPF30+, it’s an inferior sunscreen, if its less than SPF30, it becomes difficult, if you’re planning on spending time in the sun, let’s be honest, you shouldn’t be picking up anything less than an SPF30.
With regard to SPF50 vs SPF50+, both comply to 2012 requirements, the difference is in the SPF, where SPF50+ indicates the tested SPF is between 50-60 and SPF50+ has an SPF of more than 60.
Brands to watch out for
A review of sunscreens in supermarkets and pharmacies was undertaken to identify which brands continue to include SPF30+. Some brands may have already discontinued their SPF30+ products, however are still available via retail channels, this list is in no way exhaustive:
*Mineral based, may be OK
**Aerosol based, steer very clear
A side note, be wary when buying online, descriptions on retailer websites may refer to SPF30 when its SPF30+ and vice versa. Products are best bought when you can read the label and check the standard the sunscreen was tested and cite the physical label.
What can we do?
All we can do to protect ourselves is to be aware and make a more conscious effort when sunscreen shopping. Avoid SPF30+ sunscreen and any temptation that may go with a potentially cheaper option and tell your friends and family too, knowledge shared is knowledge gained!
Boycotting SPF30+ will help to stop brands manufacturing old and outdated sunscreens or at least go some way to force their hand to have them perform the necessary testing to comply with the 2012 standard. Continuing to buy SPF30+ only encourages the brand to keep making them.
In the SPF30+ vs SPF30 sunscreen showdown, SPF30 wins!
Following original publication, I was contacted by Skin Health, the brand managing organisation behind Cancer Council sunscreen. It was highlighted that the SPF30+ Everyday Sunscreen range had been discontinued in 2012 . Although I wasn’t able to find Cancer Council SPF30+ Everyday Sunscreen in store and had observed the newer ‘SPF30’ variants being sold, I had found that there had been many online retailers/pharmacies that gave the impression SPF30+ were still in the market as they hadn’t updated their product pages along with a Cancer Council promotion that had SPF30+ imagery being used. Skin Health are now working with retailers and pharmacies to correct this so all Everday variants are good Everyday variants.
Cancer Council continue to have one SPF30+ variant in the Repel range, but have indicated that this is earmarked to be replaced by SPF50+ soon.