Does sunscreen labelling need to change after survey uncovers confusion?


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Does sunscreen labelling need to change after survey uncovers confusion?

Related tags Ultraviolet Sunscreen

Following confusion among consumers over what protection different sun care products provide, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has called for a change in labelling of sunscreen due to what it calls a ‘worrying lack of understanding.’

According to a RPS study carried out on 2000 Brits, many people are unaware that the SPF rating alone displayed in sunscreen labelling does not guarantee good all round protection from potential sun damage.

“This survey indicates that there is a huge amount of confusion around sunscreen labelling that is a barrier to effective sun protection,”​ says Chief Scientist for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Professor Jayne Lawrence.

The results show that only 8% of those surveyed knew that the SPF rating on the product label refers to protection from UVB rays only, and more than 80% said they either thought the SPF was an indication of levels of protection from both UVB and UVA (56%) or they simply did not know what the rating stood for (25%).

“Clearly many consumers do not realise the SPF rating applies only to the amount of protection offered against UVB rays, not UVA rays – both of which can damage the skin and cause skin cancer,”​ continues Lawrence.

Less than a third of those surveyed said they always checked the UVA star rating when buying sunscreen (31%), and 20% of students and 15% of adults with children in their household admitted that they never checked it.


Manufacturers currently label sun protection products according to an EU-wide classification, testing and labelling system recommended by the European Commission. 

As with all claims made by cosmetic products, SPF (indicating the protection from the sun’s UVB rays) and UVA claims must be backed up.

On sunscreen packs, the SPF is followed by a number and a category (i.e. Low, medium, high or very high) and is the indication of the product's ability to protect mainly from UVB rays. The UVA protection is indicated by the letters ‘UVA’ in a circle.

The 'star rating' typically seen on products in the UK, was introduced by retailer Boots to provide extra UVA information.

Time for uniform rating

The RPS says that people should not have to pick their way through complicated dual ratings information to understand how sunscreen works and the amount of protection it potentially provides.

Rather, Lawrence suggests that it is time for sunscreen manufacturers to provide one easy to understand rating, based on a simple description of the total amount of sun protection offered: low, medium, high and very high protection.

“People now have largely got the message that they must protect their skin from the sun using sunscreen, along with other precautions such as covering up and keeping out of the sun during the hottest part of the day,”​ she says.

“What the RPS is calling for now is one uniform measure for all sun protection products, so pharmacists can provide easy to understand advice on the effectiveness of products and how they should be used.”

The UK trade association, the CTPA, says it shares the concerns of the RPS over the outcome of its survey on the important issue of sun protection, with Dr Emma Meredith, Director of Science at CTPA, expressing concern over an apparent confusion over labelling. 

“We look forward to working with the RPS and pharmacists to create better awareness of how we can all protect against the sun’s damaging rays,”​ she adds.

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