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Sunscreens – despite questions re optimal UVA protection – still reduce skin cancer risk

In response to the recent UVA concerns and in an effort to get an idea of the levels of UVA protection provided by sunscreens locally, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) commissioned the testing of a sample of sunscreens drawn from various local and international brands, and included some CANSA Seal-bearing sunscreen products. The sunscreens were tested specifically according to the European Colipa Standard for assessing sunscreen UVA protection – the most stringent test currently in use. (A recently published ISO Standard for UVA protection should be incorporated into the South African Standards within the next year.)

Only 35 products (of the 357 listed sunscreens sold locally by 58 manufacturers and/or distributors) were tested, due to financial constraints as a non-profit organisation (NPO). Although the results provided an informative glimpse of the overall picture, it was hardly a representative percentage and far too inadequate a number from which to draw final conclusions regarding the total industry protection status. Whilst the limited sample size, together with the fact that sunscreen manufacturers and/or distributors were operating within the bounds of the law (i.e. SANS 1557:2009 – and not the Colipa Standard against which it was tested), rendered public disclosure of the test results irrelevant – it served its purpose in empowering CANSA with adequate information to support negotiations with industry for improved sunscreen formulations.  The tests were conducted by a recognised, reputable sunscreen testing laboratory – and whilst the number of replications for each test was scaled down, the results were more than adequate for CANSA’s probing purposes but not for product registration.

Although all CANSA Seal-bearing sunscreens comply with the current SABS standards and necessary requirements at the time of issue, CANSA decided to raise its own Seal standards and requirements and needed (in addition to the general sunscreen probe) to determine the degree of compliance (with the EU Colipa Standards) of the CANSA Seal-bearing test samples. The aim being to ensure that all Seal-bearing sunscreens meet with the most recent or highest protection standards and endeavour to attain the latter in the shortest time possible – and at the very latest by 01 April 2013.

A cancer survivor herself, CANSA CEO, Sue Janse van Rensburg, has the interests of cancer survivors and the public at heart. “The public has always been CANSA’s number one priority, and as CANSA is a cancer watchdog, we want to ensure that we stay abreast of the latest developments and research in the field of cancer research and control. CANSA feels that the public should not merely have adequate protection in terms of sunscreen, but have the absolute best possible protection. That is the extent of CANSA’s commitment to the South African public and that is why CANSA commissioned these tests.”

Read Letter from CANSA CEO regarding Sunscreen Standards

Q: Can the public trust the CANSA Seal of Recognition?

A: Yes. Since 2005 all sunscreens with the CANSA Seal of Recognition (CSOR) had to be broad-spectrum, i.e. give protection against UVA and UVB radiation in a ratio of 0.4/1. Recent research however, has found an increased correlation between UVA exposure and the onset of malignant melanoma, as well as non-optimal UVA protection provided by existing sunscreens in terms of the total UVA radiation spectrum and the photo stability of many critical sunscreen chemicals – leading to a worldwide demand for sunscreen with improved UVA protection properties.
In response, an International Standard (ISO) for sunscreen UVA protection was developed and published for comment on 1 June 2012 – this ISO standard should be incorporated in a new South African Standard within the next year and will form part of the CANSA Seal Requirements to become effective from 01 April 2013. To qualify for the CSOR in future, all products manufactured after 31 March 2013 will have to comply (in addition to the existing CSOR Requirements) with the new Harmonized Colipa UVA Protection Claim – and ultimately with a new ‘SANS 1557: 2012/13 Standard’ once it has been formulated, incorporating the newly published ISO 24443 standard. Products qualifying for the new harmonised Colipa UVA protection claim will also be required to exhibit the new CANSA SunSmart Choice Seal, replacing the original CANSA Seal of Recognition to differentiate between the former and latter formulations.

Q: Waiting for April 2013 for clarity is far too long. The summer is upon us now and we must know what to choose.

A: Choose a sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection and SPF of at least 30 to 50. As part of our responsibility towards the public as cancer watchdog – CANSA will only release objective and comprehensive information enabling the public to make informed Smart choices.  Therefore as of Monday 3 September 2012, a list will be available on our website, indicating the names of all sunscreens adhering to the EU standards. CANSA has further called on all manufacturers within the industry to assist and have been requested to forward their information to and work together.

Q: Why is CANSA withholding information on the Colipa test results?

A: CANSA has never been inclined to withhold information regarding health risk to the public. On the contrary, CANSA has always followed a policy of transparency and our research findings have always been published on our website and integrated into our health awareness promotional material. However, being less than 10% of all listed products, the test outcome was not designed for publication, consumer reference and/or as a sunscreen purchasing guide. The test results have been used in ongoing discussions between CANSA and the sunscreen industry and form the basis of negotiations motivating for changes and/or product improvements required to provide local consumers with optimal sunscreen protection at affordable prices. It’s also true that we were given no choice and had to agree not to disclose any results or else we would not have been able to get these tests done and thus use results as intended – to put pressure on the industry to meet EU standards which is compulsory by end March 2013.  There was no public benefit in disclosing the results of the sample test – whilst the majority of merchandised sunscreens still remain untested in terms of the said EU standard.  More so as many manufacturers have already been upping their own standards before and since the tests were done, some as a result of CANSA’s continued one-on-one negotiations.

Q: How will CANSA ensure that manufacturers comply with the new standard?

A: Although CANSA has no power to enforce sunscreen manufacturers to increase the UVA absorbing capacity of their products, we will withdraw the Seal from those currently bearing our Seal, if not complying with Colipa standards by March 2013 . While the SABS develops standards for sunscreen in South Africa, the industry remains self-regulatory, with no-one enforcing the law. Registration with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of South Africa (CTFA) is voluntary and infringement of SABS and/or CTFA regulations until very recent – with the advent of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) – could only be complained about by brand competitors and lodged with the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) and corrected voluntarily by the offending party.

Q: Will further tests be done on other sunscreens?
A: As a non-profit organisation, CANSA is financially severely restricted. However, we welcome and support any initiative and effort by the media and the public to encourage the Minister of Health to get all sun screens tested so that we can see that they meet the new standards. We also invite all sunscreen manufacturers to come on board in meeting these new guidelines so that we can publish them on our website.
Q: What can be done in terms of additional sun protection?
A: It is very important to understand that there is no such thing as a total sun-block or any form of safe tanning. As always, we urge the public to avoid the direct sunlight between 10:00 and 15:00, wear protective clothing and hats and to use sunscreen (SPF 30 to 50 preferable) generously applied at least every two to three hours.  Our health message has not changed at all.
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