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A Behind-The-Scenes Look Into Sunscreen Manufacturing

High levels of UV radiation in Australia means we have some of the most rigorous standards in the world.

16/11/2016 3:09 PM AEDT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 PM AEDT
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It's a long process to get to the creamy stuff in a bottle.

As the weather warms and summer approaches, Aussies start to reach for their sunscreen.

Australia faces not only some of the strongest levels of UVA radiation but also has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer worldwide. And so, it is a vital conversation to have -- and a heated one at best.

Last summer, Aussies were swept up in a stoush of complaints surrounding the efficacy of our popular sunscreens, as tests performed by consumer organisation Choice Australia claimed some were not living up to their high SPF claims.

The message that sunscreens don't work is wrong. They are high protection products.

One company facing scrutiny was one of Australia's top sunscreen brands: Banana Boat. It was reported that some of the brand's products were not SPF 50+, as labelling claimed.

The technical world of sunscreen can be a confusing space, so what are the facts? And most importantly, how can we best make sure our kids are safely protected when they hit the sand this summer?

What does SPF really mean?

Let's start with the basics. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and informs the level of efficacy of a sunscreen's protection against sunburn. As sunburn is caused by UVB rays -- those that burn the superficial layers of the skin over UVA rays that penetrate into the deeper level of the dermis -- consider SPF a measure of UVB protection.

"It is also indicative of the time you can extend your sun exposure compared to when you don't have any sunscreen on at all," Banana Boat's Global Head of R & D Grace Riccardi told The Huffington Post Australia at a media event in Melbourne.

"If you experience sunburn after ten minutes, theoretically you would experience it after 150 minutes if you are wearing SPF 15. But each person is different and it can depend on skin type."

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Sunscreen manufacturing is strictly regulated in Australia.

How are sunscreens regulated?

When it comes to regulation, Australia is a unique case -- due to intense levels of UVA radiation that come from our southern location as well as proximity to the sun and to the equator.

As a result, the terms may be stricter then you realise.

When we are formulating sunscreens in Australia, we really have to develop them specifically for Australia to meet all of these standards.

"Sunscreens that have an SPF of four or higher are classified as a therapeutic. They are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and must comply with the Australian Therapeautic Goods Act," Riccardi said.

"Because of the high levels of UV radiation in Australia, this act is one of the most rigorous standards in the world."

In 2012, the TGA made changes to how new sunscreen products were authorised for supply in Australia. The move incorporated labelling with a rating of up to SPF 50+, setting stringent requirements for 'broad spectrum performance' sunscreen.

"Keep in mind that the TGA didn't do this because SPF 30+ was not enough protection. 'Broad spectrum performance' means the sunscreen also protects against UVA rays. To reach that requirement, the UVA level must be at one third of the SPF level," Riccardi said.

"SPF 30+ is still very high protection."

What is TGA approved and tested?

  • All ingredients -- active and non-active -- that are put into Banana Boat sunscreens
  • Four hour water resistance claim for SPF 30+ sunscreens
  • Separate testing for sweat resistance

"When we are formulating sunscreens in Australia, we really have to develop it specifically for Australia to meet all of these standards."

What about development and testing?

And so we land at Ensign Laboratories -- one of Banana Boat's Australian manufacturing and testing facilities based in Melbourne.

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"Launching a new product is a robust process. It takes about three years to bring a new product into the Australian market," Riccardi said.

Starting with a consumer need or annoyance -- isn't post-sunscreen sand sticking the absolute worst? -- the R&D team will move to formulate a product idea.

"Once we have that product idea, we move into the formula development phase," Riccardi said. "Within this phase, we are producing a number of formulas and we are testing each formula a number of times."

SPF testing of all preliminary formulas are performed on human subjects and on a number of skin types. The products are also tested for their UVA level, which must rest at one third of the SPF level.

We are conducting hundreds of tests each year to ensure that we are meeting both the consumer need and also the standards set out by the TGA.

Months later, the final formulation undergoes full testing on humans to complete the process. This occurs in independent clinical labs in Australia and in the United States.

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Testing is performed in labs and on human subjects.

"During this developmental phase, we are conducting hundreds of tests each year to ensure that we are meeting both the consumer need and also the standards set out by the TGA," Riccardi said.

"Once we are ready to go into production, our quality control group will test every single batch to ensure it meets our efficacy and quality specifications."

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How can I be sure my products are safe?

The manufacturing process is rigorous and highly regulated -- and should leave Australians feeling confident in their sunblock, according to Banana Boat's Marketing Director, Rachel Pullicino.

"The message that sunscreens don't work is wrong. They are high protection products," Pullicino told HuffPost Australia.

"We took the complaints and claims that we received last year very seriously and retested the batches of sunscreen that were in question.

"We found no problems with the products. We stand by our claims that they all deliver their labelled SPF ratings as high protection sunscreens and we can stand by all of our testing. Ensign Laboratories are a huge part of that process."

Application is the biggest variable. If it is not applied evenly on the skin and as directed on the label, it doesn't work in the way that it should.

"We've done so much work in ensuring that we are meeting our SPF claims," Commercial Director of Ensign Laboratories Andrew Fast said.

"It's an expensive process and it's rigorous. But it has to be because we recognise it is such an important product for the health of Australians. And that is something that needs to be encouraged."

According to the team, discrepancies lie in application -- a process that Australians are not getting right.

"This is the biggest variable. If it is not applied evenly on the skin and as directed on the label, it doesn't work in the way that it should," Pullicino said.

"The other thing that we have learnt this year is that there are significant education gaps in how Australians are using their sunscreen and we feel responsible as a business to target those gaps."

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