Complaints from the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand triggered an investigation of sunscreens distributed in the country and tested in compliance with the Australia / New Zealand sunscreen standard AS/NZS 2604:1998. Tests conducted by the consumers’ watchdog earlier this year revealed that several sunscreen products sold in New Zealand significantly failed to meet their SPF [1] or Broad Spectrum claims.

Investigation revealed test failure

The investigation was conducted by the Commerce Commission of New Zealand, into three sunscreens distributed by the Cancer Society of New Zealand and one distributed by Douglas Pharmaceuticals. The investigation compared test results on these products provided by the Consumers’ Institute, the Cancer Society, Baxter Laboratories and Ego Pharmaceuticals. “Some of these results appeared to indicate a test failure,” the Commission revealed.

What we found when we compared the results, was that results for the same products varied from laboratory to laboratory, and in some cases within the laboratories,” said the Commerce Commission’s Director of Fair Trading, Adrian Sparrow. “There is a variability in the testing process that is not recognised in the sunscreen standard. It follows that SPF level tests under the current standard may not produce consistent results.

Margin of error

The Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia (TGA), which has also investigated the testing anomalies and the processes undertaken in the laboratories that conduct the testing, advises that there may be a margin of error of up to five points in the results achieved under the current standard. It therefore considers that a product claiming an SPF of 30 + should return a mean test figure of 35 when using the current testing procedures to ensure it will remain above 30 SPF during its shelf life.

Standard to be reviewed

The Commerce Commission of New Zealand therefore concluded that “whilst manufacturers may have been able to rely purely on laboratory test results pursuant to the standard in the past, the anomalies highlighted by this investigation indicate that this is likely to be insufficient in future”.

The sunscreen standard, which is mandatory in Australia and voluntary in New Zealand, is now being reviewed by the TGA’s Standards Review Committee in order to address these testing variability issues.

In these circumstances, the Commission will be taking no further action in relation to the four products tested but will be monitoring the outcome of the standard review,” said the Commerce Commission in a release. However, “sunscreen manufacturers should consider what steps they will take to mitigate the risk of variability within the laboratory test results,” warned Mr Sparrow.