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The science behind sunscreen safety - CTPA responds to latest Which? sunscreen report

18 May 2017

You may have read this year’s article in Which? magazine, or seen it reported in the media, that calls into question some claims made for sunscreens and the way they work.  Such claims about sunscreen safety could alarm consumers and even discourage them from using sunscreens as part of a sunsafe regime.   CTPA is concerned by this and we would like to provide some facts about the science and care that goes into producing sunscreens to ensure that consumers can trust their safety and efficacy.

The science behind sunscreen safety


Understanding the testing process: the robust science behind sunscreen safety and efficacy

  • When creating a sunscreen, companies decide what level of SPF they want in the product.
  • Scientists with expert suncare knowledge will use their wealth of experience and expertise to select the UV filters they want to use and judge how much is needed to formulate a product with the intended SPF and UVA protection. 
  • During development, the product is tested by scientists a number of times using specialist equipment, and sometimes human volunteers, to check the SPF is consistently on track. 
  • If at any stage during the process the SPF isn’t correct, then the product will not be taken any further. 
  • If the development tests all confirm the required SPF, then the product will go on to have final SPF testing on human volunteers. 
  • This lengthy and complex process carried out by manufacturers provide the assurances that the sunscreen does what it is supposed to do and has been made correctly.
  • Which? is not able to follow all of this testing process.  It bases the results of the sunscreen report just on the final SPF test which is why its results are questionable. 


In response to the findings from the 2017 Which? sunscreen report, Dr Chris Flower, toxicologist and Chartered Biologist and Director-General of CTPA, said:

We are very concerned that in seeking to call into question the efficacy of sunscreens and the way that they are regulated, Which? may discourage consumers from using them, and they might miss out on the important sun protection these provide.

“We are disappointed that Which? would release a public-facing report questioning the strict legislation and proven scientific testing that sit behind sunscreen safety without apparently seeking input from the UK regulatory bodies or dermatologists.

“We would like to reassure consumers, categorically, that they can trust the SPF of their sunscreens. In contrast to the one-off testing carried out by Which?, cosmetics companies don’t just rely on one phase of testing to determine the SPF number, but test sunscreens at various stages of their development to ensure they get consistent, proven results throughout.

“Because of the vital role sunscreens play, they are one of the most studied and tested of all cosmetics products. The British Skin Foundation recommends using sunscreens as part of a sunsafe regime, along with keeping covered up and seeking out shade during the hottest parts of the day.

Dr Anjali Mahto, Consultant Dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson said:

Keeping the skin in good condition and protected from sun damage is paramount.  There is no doubt that sunscreen limits exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays and I have no hesitation in directing my patients to choose a suitable sunscreen from any number of those available on the UK market today.  I would be worried if the Which? report caused consumers to stop using sunscreen unnecessarily.  It’s important to remember that sunscreens are one part of a sunsafe regime, along with seeking shade when possible, particularly between 11am and 3pm, and wearing loose-fitting clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, and they should never be used to stay out longer in the sun.”

The proof about sunscreens…

Products have to do what they say they will do.  Not only are sunscreens thoroughly assessed for safety but any claim made, including SPF, UVA protection and ‘extended wear’, has to be substantiated and this takes robust data.  All of this information must be kept by the company and is open to review by the authorities, who monitor compliance with the law via in-market controls.  In the UK, this is Trading Standards.

Gold standard cosmetics legislation

Scientifically sound

  • Sun protection products are classed as cosmetic products in Europe, and in many other parts of the world.  As cosmetic products they are covered by strict European cosmetic laws whose main purpose is ensuring consumer safety.  These laws are the result of intense scrutiny by scientific bodies, industry and legal experts and member states’ competent authorities, and are supported by the UK regulatory bodies.  The EU cosmetics legislation undergoes routine review to make sure it is scientifically sound and relevant. 

Held to international standards

  • UK and European regulatory authorities cooperate extensively with industry to ensure that consumers are properly protected through legislative controls. The EU cosmetics legislation is seen as a gold standard by many other areas of the world.
  • Whatever the legislative framework for sun protection products around the world, the requirements are the same:  that sunscreens are safe, effective and of good quality.  The EU cosmetic laws provide these assurances for sunscreens on the market in the UK.

Innovating to support consumers

  • Manufacturers are constantly innovating to help make the experience easier and more comfortable for the user. Examples of this are roll-ons, sprays, water-resistance or longer-lasting protection.
  • To help combat the ageing effects of UV rays, some moisturisers and foundations contain added protection but these products are not intended to be used as primary sun protection: their main function is as a moisturiser or foundation, so if you're going to spend time in the sun, you still need to apply sunscreen.


Whatever sunscreen type we choose, we can be confident in using it as part of our sunsafe regime because sun products are developed by scientists with expert suncare knowledge and they are covered by strict safety laws.


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