The following brands got our best rating for animal testing, meaning that the companies do not use ingredients that have been tested on animals after a fixed cut off date: Odylique, Badger, Green People, Neal’s Yard, Pure Nuff Stuff, Lush, Jason and Aesop.
The following brands got our middle rating, meaning that the companies state that they do not test on animals but do not appear to have a fixed cut off date: Yaoh, Attitude and Lavera.
All of the others got our worst rating. Read our feature on animal testing.
While sunscreen itself is unlikely to contain palm oil, many of the companies that produce it also produce other personal care products that do.
The following brands got our worst rating for palm oil: Benefit, Superdrug, Hawiian Tropic, Banana Boat, Clarins, Aesop and Lavera.
The following got our best rating: Odylique, Pure Nuff Stuff and Lush.
All of the others get our middle rating.
The two types of sunscreen
Sunscreens come in two types: chemical ones which absorb the UV like a sponge, and mineral ones, made of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which reflect it like a mirror.
Mineral sunscreens are very old - the use of zinc oxide paste for sun protection goes back thousands of years.
It is most common for the mainstream brands to be chemical sunscreens, and those produced by ‘natural product’ companies to be mineral ones, although many sunscreens now combine both methods. The brands we have rated are divided into chemical and mineral in the table below:
|| Mineral & Chemical Combined
|Pure Nuff Stuff
Mineral sunscreens – it’s the scale of the problem
The particles in mineral sunscreens need to be small, as large particles create gaps that the sunlight can get through. They also leave a white residue on the skin which few people who aren’t into vampire chic consider to be a particularly classy look.
As a result mineral sunscreens are nowadays frequently made of nano-particles – microscopic particles about 1/50,000 the width of a human hair.
Scientific sources unanimously say that the balance of evidence suggests that sunscreens containing nano-particles are safe to use.
However, despite the fact that they appear to be safe for consumers, companies that state that they use nanoparticles still lose half a mark in our Controversial Technologies category, because the impact of nanoparticles on the environment or on the workers who make them is not fully understood, and various concerns have been raised on both fronts.
Odylique, Badger and Neal's Yard state that they use non-nano mineral sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens – coral reefs and human health
Some of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens have also raised concerns, on both health and environmental grounds.
The main two are oxybenzone, which has some endocrine disrupting properties, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, which some believe may hasten the development of skin cancer.
As with nano-particles, the medical authorities maintain that both of these chemicals are safe to use. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Products reviewed the studies on oxybenzone and concluded that it “poses no health risk” in sunscreen.
A systematic scientific review published in 2011 examined the data on both chemicals and drew the same conclusion. They argue that it’s easy to find the odd study showing a scary effect in mice or cells for almost any chemical, but the kind of consistent pattern of evidence required to make a scientific case for danger in humans is not present.
Oxybenzone has also been implicated in the bleaching of coral reefs. Some argue that it is not an important threat compared to the others that coral reefs are facing. However, if you are going swimming around any coral while on holiday it isn’t hard to choose a sunscreen that doesn’t contain it.
Lush’s chemical sunscreen is not based on oxybenzone but on Octocrylene, Octylmethoxycinnamate and Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane.
Weighing up the risks
When looking at the risks associated with the ingredients in sunscreen, it is important to keep them in perspective. The link between UV and skin cancer is substantial and well-established, and it kills 2,500 people a year in the UK.
At various places on the Internet you can find people saying that UV does not cause cancer, but in fact sunscreen itself causes cancer. The claim is often based on the fact that the incidence of skin cancer has increased rather than decreased since sunscreen use became common.
Sunscreen can definitely lead to increased cancer risk by giving people a false sense of security, encouraging them to stay longer in the sun. However, largely, scientists attribute the increase in skin cancer to factors that are nothing to do with sunscreen.
Primarily, people tend to wear less clothing now, due to relaxing sexual norms and the fact that tans used to be considered unattractive. In addition there is more UV around due to ozone damage. Average clear sky sunburn-inducing radiation at mid-latitudes is about four percent higher than in the 1970s, but in some areas it has gone up substantially more.
SPF and UVA ratings
Surveys show that much of the population is highly confused about the protection rating system for sunscreen. The reason that it is so confusing is that the science has evolved since the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating system was designed. As a result the SPF only refers to how good a sunscreen is at blocking UVB radiation, which is the type that causes sunburn and used to be considered the sole problem. For instance, if you burn within 10 minutes of being out in the sun then a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will give you 150 minutes of protection (10 x 30).
However, in the 1980s scientists discovered that another type of rays, UVA, were also responsible for causing cancer, and were probably the main culprit for ageing the skin. Within the EU the amount of UVA protection is indicated in one of two ways, either by a 5 star system, indicating the ratio of UVA protection to UVB protection, or by the letters UVA inside a circle, which signals that UVA protection is at least one third of the UVB protection and that it meets EU recommendations. Outside of the EU, sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB have “broad spectrum” written on the label.
In the EU, sunscreen labels can only go up to SPF 50+. It is considered misleading to print higher numbers as they don’t provide any better protection. EU law also stipulates that UVA protection should rise in proportion to SPF. In the USA there is no such regulation, and US sunscreens often boast ridiculously high SPF numbers and have very poor UVA protection.
The NHS advises that sunscreen should have a SPF of at least 15, coupled with at least four UVA stars, or the circled UVA letters. It also advises that people should make sure that the sunscreen is in date, as sunscreen can degrade after a year or so, and that they shouldn’t spend any longer in the sun than they would without sunscreen.
In this guide, all the companies made sunscreens of at least SPF15. Only Yaoh and Pure Nuff Stuff did not have a UVA rating on their packaging.
Price and SPF comparison (ranked by price)