Cancer Council Australia

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SPF50+ sunscreen

In November 2012, the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced a new standard for sunscreens sold in Australia, increasing the maximum sun protection factor from SPF30+ to SPF50+.

The standard requires the same level of Ultra Violet B (UVB) protection, with improved Ultra Violet A (UVA) protection for new formulas.

UVB is the major cause of sunburn and increased skin cancer risk, while UVA contributes to ageing of the skin, as well as skin cancer risk.

The change brings Australia and New Zealand into line with the United States and Europe, where SPF50+ labelling is already allowed.

The new standard is likely to see SPF50+ sunscreens on pharmacy and supermarket shelves by mid-January 2013, though some could appear sooner.

Should you throw out your SPF30+?

Cancer Council welcomes the new standards, however the new level of protection should not be overestimated.

SPF50+ offers only marginally better protection from Ultra Violet B (UVB) radiation than SPF30+. SPF50+ filters out 98% of UVB radiation compared to 96.7% blocked by SPF30+.

SPF50+ sunscreen still needs to be applied just as liberally, re-applied every two hours (or after swimming, exercising and towel drying) and used in combination with other sun protection measures including sun protective hats, protective clothing, sunglasses and shade.

New SPF30 sunscreens

New sunscreens carrying an SPF of 30 (not 30+) have also been approved. They will have the same UVB protection as previous SPF30 sunscreens, but are required to have a higher UVA protection in order to be labelled 'broad-spectrum'.

Other sunscreen claims

The new standard also means sunscreens can no longer be labelled as 'water proof' or 'sweat proof', as such claims are misleading. They can only be labelled 'water resistant' or 'sweat resistant'.

What we recommend

Cancer Council recommends using any sunscreen that is labelled broad spectrum, water-resistant and SPF30 or above.

So there is no need to get rid of your current SPF30+ sunscreens, providing they are broad spectrum, water-resistant and have not passed their expiry date.

Manufacturers will be allowed to continue producing and selling their current formulations. The new standard applies to new products only. It offers marginally better protection and a little more choice.

What were the changes?
  Old SPF30+ New SPF30 SPF50+
UVB protection (sunburn and skin cancer) 96.7% 96.7% 98%
UVB protection (sunburn and skin cancer) in 'broad spectrum' sunscreens Included Improved Improved
Application Every two hours and after swimming, exercising or towel drying Every two hours and after swimming, exercising or towel drying Every two hours and after swimming, exercising or towel drying

Whether using SPF30, SPF30+ or SPF50+, application is the key. Apply sunscreen liberally - at least a teaspoon for each limb, front and back of the body, and half a teaspoon for the face, neck and ears. Most people apply less than half this amount, which means they get far less protection than the SPF as stated on the bottle.

What do all the terms mean?

  • SPF: The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of a sunscreen is a measure of how well it protects the skin from sunburn. Sunscreens need to be applied liberally to achieve the SPF protection claimed on the label.
  • Water resistant: Does not come off the skin during swimming or exercise, provided it is not wiped off. While a label may state a sunscreen is '4 hours water resistant', sunscreen still needs to be applied every two hours to maintain the same level of protection.
  • Broad-spectrum: Broad-spectrum sunscreens filter both UVA and UVB rays. UVB is the principal cause of sunburn, but both UVA and UVB contribute to increased skin cancer risk.
  • The '+' sign: The plus sign means 'more than'. For example, the new SPF50+ sunscreen must provide at least SPF60 in testing. This is because the same batch of sunscreen will test slightly differently in different laboratories with different methodology. By testing at SPF60, it removes any margin for error. In the previous 1998 standard, some sunscreens labelled SPF30+ actually provided much higher protection, but were not allowed to be labelled any higher than 30+. In the new standard, sunscreens can be labelled higher than SPF30+, SO the '+' sign after SPF30 is redundant.

This page was last updated on: Friday, February 1, 2013