Why an Expensive Sunscreen Could be a Dangerous Waste of Money

A new review of the top selling sunscreen products in the UK reveals a startling fact: some of the most expensive products contain SPF levels far below what they claim on the bottle.

The review, carried out by UK consumer group Which? involved15 well-known sunscreens, including international brands such as Nivea and Hawaiian Tropic, as well as cheaper brands from UK stores. Which? wanted to know whether the SPF claims made on the bottles actually matched real-life protection.

We’ll get to the findings in a moment, but to understand these tests, we need to know a bit about SPF and how it works.

What is SPF?

SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, is a measure for how well a sunscreen can protect your skin from UVB rays, that harmful radiation that can cause sunburn, damage skin and, research has shown, contribute to developing skin cancer.

When you buy a sunscreen product, it will have an SPF rating on it, like 15, 30, and usually up to 50 (claims in excess of 50 should leave you skeptical).

To find the SPF, testers will gather a group of around 20 people with what’s classed as fair or sun-sensitive skin. They measure the length of time it takes for the subjects to burn without sunscreen. The test is then redone with the sunscreen product. The “with sunscreen” figure is then divided by the “without sunscreen” figure. Round it down to the nearest five, and you have the SPF. (It should be noted that UVA/UVB calculations are slightly more complex than this, but this overview gives a general idea.)

Of course, the true length of SPF depends on a number of variables, including skin type, the amount of sunscreen you are using (most people under-apply) in relation to the area of body you are applying it to, and the conditions in which you are using the sunscreen, for instance you would need a particular kind of sunscreen if you are bathing. As such, following the instructions on the bottle carefully is important.

SPF 15 is the minimum recommended coverage in the UK and Europe, and products with higher SPFs tend to be better as they should give longer protection. As a result, all of the sunscreens Which? tested had SPF of at least 30.As Which? has shown, however, there’s no guarantee that opting for factor 30, or paying more for a sunscreen, guarantees you that coverage.

How did Which? Test Sunscreens?

The consumer group used 10 volunteers. Taking the same sized sample of each sunscreen and applying it to the same sized area on a volunteer’s back, the group then used a special lamp to simulate UVB exposure over a standardized length of time. Researchers then observed how much redness was present after UVB exposure. They compared the shortest amount of exposure using the product and without the product and, as outlined above, calculated the SPF.

The group also tested for the UVA protection of each sunscreen, UVA being the other type of harmful rays. Under EU guidelines (though not FDA guidelines), sunscreens must offer UVA protection that is at least a third of the SPF — but would the less expensive products match their more expensive rivals?

What did the Tests Show?

Piz Buin Ultra Light Dry Touch Sun Fluid SPF30 (150 ml), Malibu Protective Lotion SPF30 (200 ml), and Hawaiian Tropic Satin Protection Ultra Radiance Sun Lotion SPF30 (200 ml), all had an SPF lower than 25. Repeat tests saw Piz Buin and Hawaiian Tropic twice fail. In addition, Malibu Protective Lotion SPF30 (200 ml) also failed the UVA test, with UVA protection lower than 10.

When comparing the products by price, the researchers found that the cheapest product, Calypso Sun Lotion SPF 30,priced at just 1.20 per 1oo ml, passed the tests with sound SPF and UVA protection. However, the Piz Buin product, which came in at a massive 11.30 per 1oo ml, failed. Hawaiian Tropic, at 7 per 100 ml, also failed on the SPF test.

Which? contacted Piz Buin and Hawaiian Tropic, as well as other companies that failed the tests. They responded that they are confident that their own rigorous trials have shown that their products are effective. Which? is recommending that until this problem is addressed, consumers may want to stay clear of the products that failed their tests.

Quick Tips on Sunscreen:

  • Teaspoons for Protection: The World Health Organisation suggests that 35 ml of sunscreen is enough to cover the whole body while preserving the SPF of the product. A good guide is to think in teaspoon measures, applying one teaspoon per limb, one to the face and one to the chest and back. Over-applying a small amount on the chest and back to ensure good coverage is acceptable.
  • Apply sunscreen every two hours. That’s right, it might sound like a lot, but this recommendation will ensure that your coverage remains constant.
  • Look for “broad spectrum” on the product label. This will ensure you’re getting both UVA and UVB protection. This is something that is not guaranteed in the USA.
  • No sunscreen product should claim to be “water-proof” or “sweat-proof.” If it does, don’t buy it.
  • Want water resistance? Check the label. According to FDA regulations, “water resistant” sunscreens should always indicate how long the sunscreen’s protection lasts and whether that protection applies to just sweating or swimming. If the product doesn’t offer these notes on its labeling, look elsewhere.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Diane Wayne
Diane Wayne2 years ago

I have had skin cancer and now I use Vichy 60 daily. There are good sunscreens from Italy and Mexico, too. American products too often produce more skin cancer.

heather g.
heather g3 years ago

I can't recall reading "Broad Spectrum" on any sunscreens I've bought - but will certainly keep that in mind in future.
A skin specialist interviewed on TV indicated that SPF 30 is the ideal protection. It lasts for 30 minutes, so should be re-applied after that time. She didn't have much confidence in the higher SPF brands.....
Seems there's no honesty in anything that's sold .....

Manuela C.
Manuela C3 years ago

35ml per limb looks more doable than 1ml per square cm.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago

Good info, thanks

Julia Cabrera-Woscek

I wear sunscreen everyday I go out the door. Melasma is embarrassing and the only thing that helps to not get it worse is the sunscreen.

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez3 years ago


Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Oh lordy, it's always something. I cover up as much as possible when outside in the sun and use a good sunblock only for prolonged exposure such as on day hikes.

Barbara L.
Past Member 3 years ago

I cannot use sunblock -- I've tried every brand that I can find and it still bothers my skin. I avoid the sun after 10 am. I get my sun time before then.

My husband can use a sun block but is still cautious about which brand he buys and what it contains.

Kamia T.
Kamia T3 years ago

Sorry, but given the toxins in sunscreen, as well as the fact that so many people are now Vitamin D & K deficient because we sit our booties inside staring at screens for far too long each day, I don't bother using the goop. I have no need to look 22 forever, and have so much better health after getting out into the sun regularly for a few weeks.

Sue H.
Sue H3 years ago

Finding a non toxic inexpensive sunscreen is very difficult. EWG has a good list to check.