Breaking the barrier ... SPF50+

Breaking the barrier ... SPF50+

Australian sunscreens may now be sold with a rating of SPF50+. The Therapeutic Goods Administration has given the go-ahead for the new ratings and at least two brands went on the sale in the past 24 hours with revised labels.

It's believed most brands will not put through the label changes until mid January.

Sunscreens that contain sufficient UVB protection may increase SPF claims from 30+ to 50+ and all sunscreens will be required to include a new, higher protection level against cancer-causing UVA rays.

"For the first time what they say on the box is actually going to mean something," says Dr Greg Goodman, associate professor of the Dermatology Institute of Victoria. "Our understanding of UVA has improved along with the testing. We now know UVA sets up immuno-suppression and the chance of getting skin cancer. UVA is the main cause of sun-induced skin ageing."

The new standard brings Australia – which leads the world in skin cancer deaths – in line with the US. In Europe and Britain where SPF50+ products are commonplace, sunscreens are classified as toiletries rather than regulated as medicines as in Australia.

Local manufacturers say the UVA requirement will lead to increase costs of about 10 per cent. However, Alan Oppenheim, the managing director of Ego Pharmaceuticals, doubts if this will be passed on to consumers because the sector is so highly competitive. "Many products on the market are already offering greater protection than SPF30+. We know this. We could let dermatologists know and pharmacists know this but until now we couldn't let the consumer know," says Mr Oppenheim.

Dr Goodman says many products would nonetheless need to be reformulated. Some brands – including L'Oreal's Lancome and La Roche-Posay – had SPF50+ products relabelled and in stores this morning but the majority of SPF50+ products are not expected to be on the shelves until mid-January.

Jen Makin, SunSmart manager at Cancer Council Victoria, said no one should be concerned there is anything wrong with SPF30+ sunscreen. "If you have sunscreen in your beach bag or the medicine chest it remains good quality sun protection. SPF50+ is simply a little better."

The last change in standard, from SPF15+ to SPF30+ was in 1997. Professor Diona Damian of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, says the latest change allowed by the TGA is an overdue step "but not a radical one".

"It will allow people to better distinguish between products and have more confidence that they're getting better protection," Professor Damian says. "Sunscreens have improved remarkably. But people must realise that 'SPF' is just an indicator – it does not mean you can go out in the sun 50 times longer than normal. Real life is different to laboratory testing, where 2mg of lotion is used per square centimetre of skin: people use only a third of that. It's difficult behaviour to change but SPF50+ might give an increasing appreciation of that silent wavelength UVA and its overall causation of skin cancer. There's a dire need for that in Australia."