Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog has found that more than four-fifths of the sunscreen products it tested failed to live up to their protective claims, in a controversial study prompting most of the cosmetic brands involved to dispute its findings and methodology.
Of the 30 products subjected to the Consumer Council testing, 25 had a lower sun protection factor (SPF) than declared on their labelling, while just seven met their stated “PA” protection level.
The PA level refers to the protection standard against Ultraviolet-A rays (UVA), which are linked to skin ageing, while SPF relates to the blocking of sunburn-causing Ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays.
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The more plus signs for the PA level, the stronger the product’s resistance to UVA. For SPF, the higher the factor, the greater the level of protection against sunburn.
Publishing its report on Thursday, the watchdog found that products from Fancl and Bio-Essence offered protection below SPF15 despite being labelled SPF50. Only 19 of all the products examined listed their possible allergen ingredients, the analysis also found.
Japanese cosmetics company Fancl’s sunscreen came second worst overall in the watchdog’s league table for high-protection products marketed as SPF50 or above, a ranking the brand vigorously disputed.
In one measure, its product was stated as PA++++, half the council’s PA++ valuation.
Pharmacology professors also warned that variations in testing meant some results were not conclusive and flagged as an issue the sampling of Australians for a product designed for Asians.
The council identified several products as displaying discrepancies between the labelling and actual protection levels, naming some of the brands involved as Estée Lauder, iPSA, Anessa, Shiseido, Curél, Sofina, Laneige, Dermacept, Bio-Essence.
But the companies stood behind their products, saying they had already been tested and met the requirements of their markets.
In individual statements to the council they suggested its approach to methodology could explain the variations in figures in comparison with other analyses.
All of the tested products remained on the shelves, although the council said Neutrogena had already removed its sunscreen from sale before the study.
The Consumer Council outsourced the checks to laboratory company Eurofins in Australia which tested the PA factor in vitro rather than on human skin.
The products were analysed under a European Union framework as the city currently does not have regulatory standards in place for measuring SPF and PA effectiveness.
The testing recorded the efficacy of Fancl’s Sunguard 50+ Protect UV sunscreen as SPF 14.3 and PA++, but reports from the United States and China, which both tested on human skin, reported an SPF of above 50 and PA++++.
Disputing the findings of the Consumer Council, Fancl said the watchdog had used an outdated and one-sided methodology to examine their product.
Michelle Ma Chan Mok-lan, co-founder and executive director of Fantastic Natural Cosmetics Limited, the sole distributor of Fancl products in Asia excluding Japan, said she feared the public might not be receiving the most accurate information because the consumer watchdog had denied its request to use multiple methodologies for testing the products.
She said that its product went through two rounds of testing by Cantor Research Laboratories in the United States in 2019 and the Chongqing Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital in China in 2017.
The latter test has been recognised by China’s National Medical Products Administration to import and distribute the sunscreen to mainland China and Hong Kong markets.
“The point is that the Consumer Council chooses to ignore or discredit these two other reports without good reason,” Fancl said in a statement.
“Although the Consumer Council test was conducted in 2020, they’re using the methods from 2010,” Ma Chan said at a press conference on Wednesday ahead of the watchdog’s publication of results.
In response to Fancl’s comments, the council said all the products in question were studied by a global laboratory to ensure fairness.
The International Organisation for Standardisation updated its methods relating to sunscreens in 2019 which recommended testing the SPF level on human skin.
Ma Chan said that her company submitted Fancl’s most recent sunscreen laboratory reports to the Consumer Council in mid-September but accused the watchdog of refusing to accept extra information to supplement its report.
“As one of the core values of the Consumer Council is to uphold fairness and justice, we feel that it is only reasonable for them to accept our request, which is reasonable and supported by international publications and expert opinions to re-test the product,” said Peggy Cheung, legal adviser for Fancl and a consultant at law firm Kwok Yih and Chan.
Fancl had sought the advice of two medical academics to review the test reports from the Consumer Council and lab results from the US and China.
Henry Tong Hoi-yee, honorary associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of pharmacology and pharmacy, said that results reported from a single test should not be deemed conclusive as laboratories varied in their methodology and sample testing, often leading to large disparities, citing three international scientific papers.
“Personally, I think a re-test [of the product] is needed in order to determine the reason for the large disparity,” Tong said.
He added that the Eurofins laboratory results might not be entirely incorrect as it was a reputable institution, but its methods were not holistic enough.
Professor Bernard Cheung Man-yung, from HKU’s department of medicine and president of the Hong Kong Pharmacology Society, said the Eurofins report unfairly ran the tests on an Australian audience based on European standards, rather than relying on a local sample, given the products tested by the Consumer Council were formulated for Asian skin.
Cheung said consumers should not rely on sunscreen alone to protect themselves against harsh rays, advising the public to wear light long-sleeved clothing and to shield themselves with a hat or umbrella when exposed to sunlight for long periods of time.
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