/ Health

No more Slip-Slop-Slapdash SPF claims


Our latest test found a sunscreen that fell short of its SPF claim. How can this still happen, asks Which? chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith?

The era is over when we all blithely slapped on a bit of sunscreen before we roasted ourselves and then treated the burns with calamine lotion. Each year, 100,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the UK. Cases of the deadliest form – melanoma – have risen by 360% since the late 1970s. Cancer specialists think this is partly due to more of us holidaying abroad.

But awareness of the link between sun exposure and skin cancer has also, thankfully, increased. Most of us are now mindful of the need for proper sun protection, including what to look for in a sunscreen. When we asked you what you consider first when buying one, 85% of you told us the product’s sun protection factor (SPF) was key.

It’s crucial that the SPF claims on sunscreens are correct.  And in our latest test of 15 sunscreens that claim to offer SPF30, I’m happy to say that the vast majority were. However, we did uncover some questionable claims, including one Don’t Buy sunscreen that our tests showed offered significantly less than its claimed level of protection. This was a Hawaiian Tropic product – and it’s the third year running that a sunscreen from this brand has failed our SPF test. How can this still be allowed?

Once-a-day sunscreens

Another worrying trend is the advent of once-a-day sunscreens. These are banned in Australia, where anything that leads you  to believe that sunscreens don’t need to be regularly reapplied is forbidden. We don’t think they should be allowed over here, either. How can applying any sunscreen just once keep you well enough protected for a whole day? In fact, at the end of our tests of these particular products we discovered an average 74% decrease in SPF protection.

The SPF figure is not a vague bit of marketing puff. It’s a specific claim about how long the product could protect you in the sun, and there is absolutely no excuse for it not to be accurate.

We’ve been testing sunscreens for years now. So it beggars belief that there are still products not meeting their SPF claims. The very least we can expect is sunscreen labels we can rely on.

Take action

Discover our latest sunscreen Best Buys and, more importantly, which to avoid.


For three years, a Hawaiian Tropic product has failed to meet the required standard and I have read that the company has claimed that their product does meet the standard. I appreciate that it’s normal procedure to notify companies and the relevant authorities of unsatisfactory products and services. In this case, if Which? is sure of its facts, Trading Standards should be looking into the case and if appropriate take action against the manufacturer.

This is a safety issue and I’m glad the identity of the questionable product has been made public and not just revealed to subscribers to the magazine.

wavechange has nailed the fundamental question – what happened after the first fail, and then the second fail.

If it were Australia I imagine the brand would have received a “Shonky Award” with all the attendant media coverage.

My view is am not entirely happy that in a matter of science that we can have two competing statements of efficacy. Surely there should be a definitive explanation of how either the tests replicate each other or differ, The different claims may lead to yet another EU standard testing regime which is flawed by being loosely regulated.

Hawaiin Tropic is a brand of Edgewell who declare of their personal care products: “Well reflects our ultimate goal, as a personal care business, to deliver wellbeing for the people who use our products. It speaks to our commitment that everything we create is well designed and well made.” It is distributed by in Europe by Wilkinson Sword, whom they own. It seemingly is available at Boots, Superdrug and, as Which? says, online where no doubt many thrifty holiday makers will buy their necessities.

There should be no ambiguity about the test procedure. It is carried out on people using a Xenon source and strictly controlled. It is an ISO standard (International Standards Organisation) reproduced by BSI as BS EN ISO 24444, so the UK tests should reflect tests in other countries, and particularly in the USA, the home of the manufacturer. So why do Which? not send samples that failed to the USA (maybe the FDA) for validation. They may have the teeth to see such products are withdrawn from sale. If Which? has seen this product fail for 3 years I wonder why action has not been taken before now?

Which? should also, if it has confidence in its results, inform the retailers of its findings so they can (should) withdraw the product from sale as, apart from being potentially hazardous to health, it fails trades description. Have they done this?

The only caveat to your post that I can add is whether the formulation is the same in the EU and in the US. For many many years Dunlop has been a brand name with different owners in different world markets so one cannot assume the same product despite the name.

This must be a particular problem in a world of grey imports to the EU. You could also see the potential for citizens of the UK to buy cheap inferior sunscreens from the USA without realising that the formulations are different.

For an overview of sunscreens Wikipedia is interesting , and mentions in passing the possible effects of sunscreen chemicals on other animals.

Maybe we need to start our own Shonky Awards, united with Europe or otherwise, starting with loose regulations and carrying on with dodgy claims. And the Poorformance Award goes to…

I hope we manage to get the dodgy sunscreens off the shelves. To think they may cost lives…

And get them to be sold without tax added? I would argue that saving your skin, literally or otherwise, isn’t a luxury.

Hear hear for the Shonkys
They ain’t messin’ around …

I think I can almost imagine a sound track to go with it.

I like the idea so long as the word “shonky” has now lost all its anti-Semitic connotations. That might not matter so much in the Antipodes but it sure would up here.

You show me a dictionary that says its anti-semitic because I cannot find one. Admittedly only three on-line and my Chambers. The nearest I can get is Collins suggesting it might be based on a Yiddish word . I have also found it as a dialect word as the base. But given its the dictionaries against you … I am inclined to think it is OK.

SO in tribute to the consumers of Australia I think we should acknowledge their less supine Awards system.

For lovers of Pratchett this link relates to an early Irish derivation

There is every likelihood that in fact it derives from shoddy which was one of the poorest types of fabric and that dates back 100 plus years from 1950.

The OED says:
[Shortened form of SHONICKER.]

An offensive name for a Jew. Hence {sm}shonky a.1 (see quot. 1951).
1938 W. MATTHEWS Cockney Past & Present v. 153, I diffidently suggest the following words as the most familiar slang terms rarely used except by cockneys..shonk, nose, Jew. 1940 R. POSTGATE Verdict of Twelve I. v. 75 Let’s have a bit of fun with the shonks. 1951 PARTRIDGE Dict. Slang (ed. 4) Add. 1168/1 Shonky, adj., mean; money-grubbing: late C. 19-20. 1981 ‘W. HAGGARD’ Money Men xv. 174 ‘Brighton?.. It’s full of shonks.’.. ‘Which means there are hotels with night clerks.’

also, shoniker:

[Orig. uncertain: see quots. 1966, 1970.]

An offensive name for a Jew (see also quot. 1914).
1914 JACKSON & HELLYER Vocab. Criminal Slang 75 Shoniker, current among cosmopolitan thieves, especially Jews. A neophyte or inexperienced hand at the game. 1927 Dialect Notes V. 462 Shonniker, n., a Jewish pawn~broker. 1932 J. T. FARRELL Young Lonigan vi. 269 Two hooknoses..did come along. Andy and Johnny O’Brien..stopped the shonickers. 1966 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. 1964 XLII. 45 Thus folk etymology derives shonicker from Yiddish schnozzle… My colleague..suggests a derivation from Hanukkah. 1970 L. M. FEINSILVER Taste of Yiddish 338 Shon, shonk, shonky, shoncker, shonniker. These opprobrious terms for a Jew in England are supposed to have come from Yiddish shoniker (petty trader or peddler).

Thanks Ian. I didn’t have to look up the word “shonky” to know that it had derogatory anti-Semitic overtones. It was current in my own background. Your evidence shows that these connotations certainly have pedigree but might now be obsolete. Nevertheless it’s not a very nice word and I think we should challenge Conversation contributors to come up with a better one that sits more comfortably in modern [UK] English usage.

If we are going to utilise old meanings as a judgement on current names I am much afraid for all girls called Jade. It would not be difficult to find many far more common old terms which have changed meanings.

As around 25 million people plus know what a Shonky Award is already it would seem rather an odd move to take an obscure, rarely used, Cockney slang word as being an important consideration.

The attraction for me , apart from being already known, is that it ties consumer groups together, and being an unusual but snappy word would generate more media inches. However if someone can come up with something better I would be pleased but surprised.

I suspect John’s concern is that the very award name resonates with its origins. I’d never heard the name before, so I question whether it’s really, as you say ‘already known’, although it may be in the Antipodes, but it’s worth considering that even rarely-used words can harbour a multitude of uncomfortable connotations for certain groups. Sadly, the Jewish community is all too frequently the target of unpleasant asides and more, and that’s often because of ancient stigmas and long-held and often bigoted beliefs. We’re not Jewish, but we have close friends who are, and they’re among the most decent, thoughtful, inoffensive and caring people we know. I really don’t think we should use terms which they find (even historically) offensive.

Perhaps Which? could simply give them “Worst Buy” status and advertise the said products in place of the dreadful “Good Decision” ads?

I didn’t want to blow this up out of proportion but as soon as I saw the word it hit a nerve. I am not Jewish and I don’t think any of my Jewish friends and acquaintances would take offence because the experiences and doctrines of the Jews have taught them to take life on broad shoulders. If the word offends no one then let it stand. But I still think there must be better words to use for this purpose. I am not convinced that there is such a strong community of interest in duff product awards that we have to share the entire vocabulary.

I think it is PC gone mad given the OED , a dictionary that delves into historic terms is the only place you can find this definition. If it is dying out in human memory lets make sure its limited darker past is lost completely with a modern meaning.

If one truly wishes to go the whole hog lets ask OED to remove all historic adverse words so they could no longer be known. Jade is in numerous works and accessible dictionaries but people seem to have been able to get over that easily enough.

I have no problem with the Shoddies as the awards collectively be known. We can award a Shoddy to VW this year for their known and admitted cheating, and continuing behaviour. They can put that next to the voted for Which? Best Automotive Manufacturer Award 2015.

The trouble with “shoddy” is it means poor quality, but not necessarily any worse (such as fraudulent or dangerous). Cr*p might be appropriate?

I think using the ‘PC gone mad’ line is simply deflecting the issue. It’s nothing to do with Political correctness but it is to do with making sure that a leading organisation whose very existence is based on representing the underdog does not earn itself any bad press. “N****r” is no longer used, but would you feel comfortable using it?

I think you are on the right lines, Malcolm, but there is already a monthly magazine called “Total Carp” [whose name was presumably revised to make it acceptable on shop shelves even though the content is correctly described].

Which? has used the name ‘Shoddi’ for one of the products featured in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GGBVehqNcY

Hello everyone, this discussion has gone a little off-topic here, as you know we don’t have Shonky Awards but we appreciate your feedback and will share it with others in the organisation. Now can we all please return to discussing sunscreens please – thank you 🙂

People can choose to be offended, and like any populist emotive cause, it is easy to support it but much harder to stand against it.

I was chairing a conference once and inadvertently, when referring to an obstacle to resolving a problem, spoke of “the n****r in the woodpile”. It was a phrase in common use in my youth, with no racist connotations. Just like “fly in the ointment” – nothing against flies. I did apologise as soon as I had said it, but no adverse reaction either at the time or afterwards.

We have to use our common sense when interpreting a remark, and not use the opportunity to make the worst of it. “Political correctness” is an oxymoron anyway. What politicians behave correctly?

Is it politically correct not to ask for Hawaiian Tropic to be withdrawn from sale in the UK?

Judging by the column inches in the Australian media devoted to the Annual Shonky Awards ceremony would it not be advantageous for the Consumers’ Association to get a better coverage by adopting a more cutting attitude to companies?

I wonder if this is a staff decision or have the Which? Ltd Board discussed this? Or is it a role for the Trustees.? One thing having a Which? Ltd Board is that by its nature it is composed of businessmen who may naturally prefer a less overt style in criticism.

One problem I have is the ever increasing use of extreme terms – shocking, appalling, rip-off, broken – being used that devalues their impact, particularly when they may not be fully deserved. Publicity-seeking organisations tend to use attention-grabbing wording and headlines to attract notice, rather than being objective, fair and balanced about the underlying topic . I would not like this to become the Which? policy (although to some extent is has crept in).

“A blistering report on Hawaiian Tropic that leaves unsuspecting sunbathers frazzled and vulnerable to a painful death from skin cancers”, or “SP25 Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen cream does not meet protection claim. Which? asks for it to be withdrawn from sale and informs the FDA in the USA”. I’m a scientist/engineer so know what my approach would be. But I might be in a minority in this publicity-hungry world. (just trying to keep this on topic).

@pvicarysmith – Please could you let us know if Which? is going to take the poor performance of the Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen further. When public safety is involved, I don’t think it is enough to simply brand a product as a ‘Don’t Buy’.

Should we have to prompt Which? to take action over a failed unsafe product?

@wavechange @malcolm-r thanks both for your suggestions. There’s ongoing work in relation to our sunscreen test results – we’re currently exploring constructive ways to share our findings and the safety concerns that stem from our test results. One way we’re doing this is by awarding products a ‘Don’t Buy’ status and publicising our results.

@ldeitz, Thanks Lauren. If Which? are confident that their testing has been carried out fully in accordance with the ISO Standard, and the results are correct, then why have they not asked for a product that could lead to harm being withdrawn from sale in the UK?

Only Which Members (and Convo contributors) will know about its deficiency while the rest of the population will remain exposed to its potential lack of protection. Tell retailers, for example, that this product is not fit for urpose.

I’m sorry if this approach seems a bit of an attack but what is the point of uncovering defective products if Which? do not follow through to protect all consumers? It is surely a responsibility we expect to be taken on our behalf – at least as members? 3 years is a long time to simply report on this defective sunscreen?

Thanks Lauren. There have been many comments about Which? testing but I hope we can all agree that making the public aware of unsafe products must be a high priority. If Which? has identified a problem with a product and the manufacturer disagrees then they are hardly likely to take action. I hope Which? will take this to National Trading Standards.

The only danger is that the vast financial resources of Edgewell might be used to threaten legal action against Which? You know what the Americans can be like.

However, wavechange, are we in some agreement that more needs to be done than just publishing a Which? report for members?

I don’t know whether National Trading Standards is a body that will help:
“The National Trading Standards Board is a group of senior and experienced local government heads of trading standards representing all trading standards services across England and Wales. The Board was established by the Government to improve the enforcement of laws intended to tackle rogue traders operating both regionally and nationally who are causing harm to consumers and legitimate businesses. The Board issues grants and funds national and regional initiatives.” It seems to be set up to tackle more major investigations and to coordinate approriate work between local trading standards. However, it may fit the bill.

I certainly believe we should have an active and directly accessible national body to collect, collate and, when appropriate, act on complaints that are not about local affairs and businesses. Which will apply to many consumer issues, particularly products.

Perhaps Which? has arranged further testing of the sunscreen so that it is sure of its facts. That would be a professional approach and one that could save a lot of possible embarrassment. It has always amazed me how Which? does so well at escaping high profile criticism by the providers of products and services that have been found wanting.

We can certainly agree that National Trading Standards should have a role in handling issues that are not local.

Which has, I believe, tested this product before and failed it. If it is not sure of its test results it would, I expect, make that clear in its report. However, I’m sure Which? will provide the answers we need.

We will keep up the pressure, Malcolm. 🙂

I feel strongly about sun protection because a good friend contracted skin cancer despite taking great care to use sunscreen because he is very fair skinned. He survived the treatment but had to stop driving and then to retire early on health grounds.

I recall that a Boots Soltan product was also substandard in the previous sunscreen trial.

Well I think I can help out here as the EU site seems to be in the name of Tanning Research Laboratories Llc which is not necessarily anything to do with Edgewell. I note the Wiki page refers to a trademark for the US and Canada which might indicate that only the US part was bought by Playtex.

It does seem absurd that companies manufacturing goods cannot be pinned down at all for where they are registered etc. Surely this should be a mandatory requirement if you are selling in the EU and your are a multi-million seller.

I went down the same route, Diesel. I expect there is a lot of duplication of effort. I think you mentioned that the formulation could vary with country and I have seen many examples of this, including laundry detergents and Mars Bars. Having a unique product identifier would help.

I was surprised to read that Reimann P20 had fallen short in the testing programme. I have been using it on my sailing trips in Greece for the past 8 years and have never been burned despite being out in the weather all day and (rather unwisely) not wearing a hat despite my lack of hair. I have just returned from 3 1/2 weeks where I used the P30 product on my head and face and the P20 version elsewhere again with no burn despite swimming multiple times, T shirts on and off and catching the first and last rays of the sun. Perhaps the testing programme should be supported by member observations. P20 works for my wife and I and we will continue to choose it over all other creams because of its effectiveness.

If anyone is a member of the French Que Choisir consumer group they have just reviewed 17 types baby/child grade sunscreens. They also cover anti-sunburn clothes and for children and adults.

Different labs, different results — an explanation for readers

CHOICE isn’t the first consumer organisation to find that our sunscreen test results differ from those achieved by manufacturers, despite the fact that labs are supposedly testing to the same standard:

Our counterparts, Consumer Reports in the US and Which? in the UK, have found the same thing when testing sunscreens. So did Consumer New Zealand, using the same lab that we used.
In case it was this particular lab that was the problem, Consumer New Zealand sent a sample to a third lab when they did their test, and got different results again – slightly lower than those achieved by our lab, which in turn were a lot lower than the manufacturer’s chosen lab.

Right now, it seems that one lab’s SPF 50+ isn’t the same as another’s. In fact, the issue of different labs getting different results is longstanding and well-documented – and not restricted to consumer organisations choosing the ‘wrong’ labs.

The power of suggestion

Take, for example, these tests organised by Procter & Gamble (which makes personal care and health products) in the US:

In one test, they sent a product already on the market, which was sold as SPF 100, to five different labs. They told the labs the SPF was “somewhere between SPF 20 and 100”. The test results ranged from SPF 37 to 75, with no two labs producing similar results – and none achieving 100.
In a second test, the five labs were sent a sunscreen and told its expected SPF was 80. Three labs scored it pretty close to SPF 80, and the other two found it was 54 and (approximately) 70. So, when labs were told the expected SPF value, they were more likely to get it, suggesting an element of bias towards getting the target result.

An expert from the lab we used also voiced concerns about data from one particular lab, which included data sent to us by one of the manufacturers in our test to prove its SPF results. The numbers suggested that people without sunscreen burn in a very short time – around two minutes, sometimes even less – potentially making the protection offered by the sunscreens tested look much more powerful than it really was. (By way of comparison, our lab recorded a minimum equivalent of six minutes for a very fair-skinned person, and an average of seven to eight minutes.)

The problem with varying results also seems to be more pronounced with higher SPF products, where tiny differences in measured UV protection amount to big differences in SPF rating.

See our guide to buying and using sunscreen for more expert advice on choosing the right sun protection.
Why does it matter?

Whatever the actual numbers, clearly not all SPF 50+ products are the same, and some protect better than others.

Obviously we’d recommend the sunscreens that met their label claims in our tests. In addition, sunscreens that tested over SPF 30 in our tests rate as ‘high’ UV protection, and will give you the equivalent of at least five hours’ protection if you use them correctly and reapply them every two hours. But you’re at risk of burning quicker than you would with a ‘true’ SPF 50+ product.

Given that most people – as many as 85% – don’t use enough sunscreen, applying a true SPF50+ product will better allow for some user error.

The difficulty may be in the choice of subjects used on which to test sunscreens. The ISO standard does lay down parameters but presumably some variability will occur. The test, I believe, compares the time it takes for redness just to develop when exposed to a Xenon lamp between people with untreated and treated patches of skin.