'Shop-bought sunscreens are made to meet certain standards  under EU law they have to be safe to use and are tested to check they give the protection claimed on the bottle.'

Johannesburg - Sunscreens sold on supermarket shelves in South Africa are reliable and provide adequate protection against sun damage, says a top expert.

Dr Beverley Summers, a lecturer in the pharmacy department of the University of Limpopo, was commenting on the sunscreen saga that unfolded after it emerged that the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) had tested several local products, finding they were not optimal in protecting against sun damage.

Investigative magazine Noseweek reported on the confidentiality agreement that forbade Cansa from making its test results public.

Summers’s photobiology laboratory at the Medunsa campus tests many of the sun creams on store shelves in SA.

She said Cansa was “trying to do the right thing” in testing them, but this had “backfired” on the cancer watchdog and on sunscreen makers.

Misinformation was being spread in a “frenzy triggered by a lack of understanding”.

“Cansa subjected the samples to a test, which in all fairness the older products weren’t designed to meet.”

Summers said the sun lotions had failed the Colipa test, the basis for a new ISO international standard for UVA assessment of sunscreens that was only finalised in May. It gauges whether sunscreens break down chemically when exposed to harmful UVA rays.

“The old tests just tested the UVA and UVB spectrum, the new ones test the spectrum and then irradiate the sunscreen with a huge UV dose equivalent to the SPF of the sunscreen.

“Some sunscreens, we know, do break down a little bit, but not so much that they become useless when irradiated. This new one [test] just takes the spectrum of protection and level of protection, irradiates it, and then takes the level again at the end.

“The new test tests for how much UVA protection sunscreen loses when irradiated. The tests show we lose a little bit on the sunscreens that didn’t make the grade. If you reapply your sunscreen regularly, it would only have a minor effect.”

This was “unless you spend hours and hours in the sun without reapplying your sunscreens”.

“I think South African sunscreens generally are reliable, certainly the newer formulations are. It’s possible that some of the older formulations need to be updated and they certainly will be after this. The sunscreens that don’t photodegrade and lose their stability are the ones containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”

Summers explained that most baby care products and children’s suncare products contained these chemicals.

“They are less reactive to the skin and less likely to biodegrade.”

Cansa said that from next week, it would provide a list on its website indicating the names of all sunscreens adhering to the EU standards.

Summers added that the Cansa Seal of Recognition was “still valid” and “still a pretty good label”.

“The manufacturers would reformulate anyway, this has just speeded up the process, but it does not mean the older products are useless and should not be used.”

A dermatologist in the south of Joburg said there was “a loss of confidence” in sunscreens, which was a pity, as several local sunscreens offered excellent protection.

“But even with a high SPF sunscreen, always encourage patients that you can’t solely rely on sunscreen. Avoid sun between 10am and 3pm as much as possible and wear protective clothing. We do recommend reapplication every two or three hours,” he said.

Why the test ourcomes are secret

Canda commissioned the testing of sunscreens, including some Cansa seal-bearing products, to get an idea of their levels of UVA protection.

Only 35 products of the 357 listed sunscreens sold locally were tested, because of “financial constraints”.

Future Cosmetics, a “recognised and reputable” sunscreen testing laboratory, ran the tests.

The sunscreens were tested according to the European Colipa Standard for assessing sunscreen UVA protection – the most stringent test in use. But as noseweek magazine reported, the tests showed the products were not “optimal” in providing protection against harmful UVA rays.

Because Cansa had signed a confidentiality agreement with Future Cosmetics, which listed some of the tested sunscreen makers as its clients, it could not disclose product names. “It was hardly a representative percentage and far too inadequate a number from which to draw final conclusions regarding the total industry protection status,” said Cansa this week.

Cansa said the test outcome was not designed for publication, consumer reference or as a buying guide, but formed the basis for negotiations with the industry motivating for changes and improvements.

Cansa had to agree not to disclose any results or face not get ting the tests done “and thus use the results as intended – to put pressure on the industry to meet EU standards, which will be compulsory by the end of March”.

Cansa said it would withdraw its seal of recognition from those sunscreens if they didn’t comply with Colipa standards by March next year. – Saturday Star