Over the past few months, the skincare industry has been shaken with sunscreens (from both Eastern and Western brands) failing to live up to their advertised level of protection. I have to hold my hands up and say I've been a little naive on this issue. Sure, I assumed that sometimes manufacturing errors must lead to bad batches but I didn't realise that a company only needs to run a single test to slap 'SPF 50' on their product. This isn't a new issue (I've since found several reputable articles from 2016 discussing that half of all sunscreens on US shelves failed to meet their SPF claims) but the controversy really came to light following Purito's 'SPF 50' testing at about an SPF 19 in a blind independent test (the brand itself also re-tested it and appeared to get a third value). So, where do we go from here? Who can we trust? I don't have all the answers but let's explore it...
There are a number of resources that really helped me in my understanding of how sunscreen testing works and why it often yields wildly different results - I recommend checking out content put out by Lab Muffin Beauty and The Eco Well. I suppose I'd just assumed that repeat tests would be conducted to reach an advertised value on an product as important as sunscreen, and this is not the case, largely due to the expense of in vivo (on human) testing. In this context; I'm not surprised we're seeing these discrepancies. Whilst some brands are quite forthcoming about their testing, this kind of transparency is rare. I have to say that this left me feeling a bit lost. It seems the industry has a reactionary approach: pulling products to retest them (in Purito's case, this was done by a 3rd party at its own expense, but the Korean Food and Drug Agency is now conducting wide independent testing of all products made by the same manufacturers) and taking them off the market if they fail. By which time, it's kind of too late.
I have to say that a lot of this made me wonder if it's really feasible for every indie brand to be bringing out a sunscreen. Perhaps this is best left to the pharmaceutical giants? This would mean the company itself has more experience in sunscreen formulation (Purito's issue was that they didn't have this expertise so relied on the manufacturer to choose the filters and conduct the testing) and can afford for more than one test to be conducted. Whilst it's an attractive idea, it was brought to my attention that in recent years both Nivea in New Zealand and La Roche-Posay (owned by L'oreal) in the US both had their products fail to live up to their advertised levels of protection, as did Hawaiian Tropic and Boots Soltan formulas here in the UK.
I also feel as though we should maybe rethink chasing SPF 50 because - if you're applying the correct amount - SPF 30 isn't bad when it comes to protection against skin cancer (it's not pictured but 50 will allow 2 photons into the skin). I do wonder if our own bias on wanting the highest possible protection is causing brands to try and get their product to test as that. Purito have reformulated their sunscreen to an SPF 30 and I think that's absolutely fine for an elegant everyday formula you're going to wear under makeup to the office. If you're wearing SPF 30 out and about then you need to be more diligent in ensuring you reapply it! (Maybe SPF 50 actually gives a false sense of security in that respect, because people don't realise they need to reapply.) You need to make a decision for yourself, ultimately; I'm a person with melanin who has experienced mild redness approximately 3 times in my life (and I was not very good at wearing sunscreen in my youth...) so if your skin is extremely fair, this difference is going to be more significant. Likewise, I work in an office, not outdoors, so what I wear day-to-day is different to what I wear when I'm going for a walk on a summer's day. I guess I just think it's situational and SPF 30 is not completely pointless if you apply enough.
Image via colorescience
In terms of how I approach sunscreen now: I think applying the right amount and reapplying it as regularly as possible is critical. It's incredibly important, and even more so when we really don't know 100% what any product would actually deliver if it was tested a hundred times over. It's important to monitor your skin more closely (if you're burning, I would question if the product is working for you) but also to use other methods like wide-brimmed hats, covering up, sitting in a cool patch of shade etc. I also think it's important to choose your sunscreen wisely: that gorgeous lightweight formula you wear to work under your makeup probably isn't going to cut it if you're going out for a hike at the height of a sunny day and sweating profusely while you get yourself up that hill. I also feel less suspicious of mineral formulas, simply because there are only a handful of filters and they're pretty 'tried and true', but the associated white cast can rule them out for a lot of people and you would most likely have to get used to an SPF 30.
In terms of what I'm buying: I lean a little more towards products that have good testing behind them (though obviously this information isn't always available - Thank You Farmer is a Korean brand that easily cleared its independent testing). I also have formulas I trust from La Roche-Posay, despite their previous issues, simply because I've used them for years and have never had an issue (and I appreciate they reformulate for the US market and make different SPF claims to what they could in Europe). I also feel I'm more trusting of brands that focus exclusively on sunscreens like Evy, who specifically have done extensive testing to strengthen their claims of water resistance and protection levels, alongside Ultrasun (who do extensive testing) and Coola and Supergoop. Additionally, Australia requires stringent testing so another idea would be to see if the product you're looking at is available at brick and mortar stores over there (and at what SPF level because, unless the lab formulating the product has been approved by the relevant bodies, it can't be advertised above SPF 15 in Australia) - one of their great homegrown brands is Ultra Violette so I recommend checking them out.
I guess this isn't a particularly satisfying answer, but it's an evolving topic and I'm going to change my approach as and when new information comes out. The most important thing is to apply enough sunscreen and ensure you continually reapply it throughout the day, and that's all I can say on that really. I think there are formulas we can have more faith in than others (personally I'm avoiding any of the brands with sunscreens made by one of the affected Korean labs and have not released their results yet, and obviously the ones like Krave, Keep Cool and CosRx who have failed) but it's tough; as consumers, it shouldn't be on us to research independent testing on a product that's meant to be regulated in the way it is. It's a sorry state of affairs but it's where we're at and I hope the recent outrage goes some way towards shaking up the industry, increasing transparency and pushing for more extensive testing.
How have the recent controversies affected how you look at sunscreen claims? Which products and brands do you still trust?