Green People Get Their Collar Felt

The case arises from their rather curious decision to run an advert knocking the efficacy of SPF50 sunscreens. They point out that an SPF 50 formulation absorbs only 1% more radiation than an SPF 30 one. This is mathematically correct. The SPF value is not a linear scale and it isn’t true that an SPF 50 has nearly double the absorbing power of one rated at SPF 50. But the scale hasn’t been devised to tell you that. The aim is to give an indicaction of how long the product protects you for. And by this reckoning the SPF 50 one will indeed continue to work long after the SPF 30 one has.

The ASA not surprisingly upheld a complaint against Green People. In the regulators terms it was straight forward. Green People had put out information that while technically true was misleading from the point of view of making it more difficult for consumers to make an informed decision about which sunscreen product most closely matched their needs. It was particularly stinging because there is a health aspect to this, and so Green People found themselves being called out not only for being dishonest, but also for being irresponsible to boot.

The take home message for consumers is that green businesses are still businesses so don’t expect them not to behave in the same way as other businesses when it comes to making a sale. Having said that, Green People weren’t exactly doing a very good job at turning a coin either. There’s a reason that advertisers don’t usually engage in knocking copy of their competition. It is all to easy for the negative tone to affect the brand. If you say that SPF 50 is useless, the consumer might very well conclude that all SPFs are useless.

There is however a bit of a point behind what they are saying. The probable reason the advert was rolled out was that Green People were losing in the arms race in the market that has seen SPF values steadily rising. They are no doubt worried about losing out to companies that have higher SPF offerings. Are the huge values of SPF now available – Neutrogena have one that comes in at 100+ – really of any benefit to anyone?

I have to say that I regard even an SPF 30 as totally over the top. A low SPF cream applied more frequently will give you better protection. Chemical sunscreens break down in light so continually topping them up is a better strategy than putting a lot on in the first place. Given that sunscreen agents don’t tend to feel very nice on the skin, it will also give you a more pleasant experience. The sunscreen agents themselves aren’t the only things that are of benefit. Keeping the skin moisturised helps prevent sun damage as well. A good formulation with a nice skin feel that encourages frequent use and with good skin hydrating is going to do more good than one crammed with sunscreen agents.

If you are doing something in the open that makes it impossible to reapply for hours on end there might be a case for using a high SPF sunscreen. The only thing I can think of is competing in the Tour de France, but no doubt there are others. But most of the time an SPF 4 reapplied every couple of hours will be fine.

5 thoughts on “Green People Get Their Collar Felt”

  1. SPF4?? Really? Far too low imho. 15 maybe, but 4 isn’t even a legal label claim in the EU, minimum is 6. Disappointing.

    1. We both know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you follow the logic of how the SPF system is supposed to work a product with an SPF of 4 applied every 4 hours should give identical protection to an SPF 30 applied every 30 hours. Another more realistic way of looking at it is that if you applied the SPF 4 one every 4 hours, you’d have applied 7.5 times more product than you would have of the SPF 30. The SPF 30 product will contain more sunscreen but I doubt it will contain 7.5 times more. So my suggested regime not only keeps the skin topped up with fresh sunscreen that hasn’t been broken down by the light it is exposed to, it also applies more sunscreen in total.

      I didn’t know that SPF 4 wasn’t a legal claim? There are companies out there making it.

  2. Hi Colin! Theoretically, you are right. Applying a sunscreen more frequently is a better solution for sun protection. But as a female who wears make-up throughout the day (and I’m not talking over the top obnoxious quantities, just a bit of concealer and a blush for a very natural your-skin-but-better look) this advice is totally impractical. One cannot apply sunscreen over make-up without smudging everything, regardless what some sunscreen producers say. So multiple sunscreen applications throughout the day would mean taking down the make-up, remoisturising, applying sunscreen and then reapplying make-up on top of all that several times a day. This would be a huge time investment (and a hassle – one would need to carry a lot of products around) hardly any woman with a job and kids is capable of. So in the imperfect world of a one-time daily application a higher spf might a bit better, as the protection would be a bit stronger at least initially. At least that’s what I hope.

  3. Johanna Warren

    Colin, sadly you are wrong saying the SPF4 every 4 hours gives the same protection as SPF30 every 30 hours. Say you burn after 10 mins, the SPF4 will allow you to be exposed for about 40 mins. Reapplying after 40 mins you will start to burn because the UV dose is cumulative. The SPF30 will allow you about 300 minutes exposure before you start to burn (ie 5 hours). You will then start to burn even if you reapply. This is why we need a range of SPF numbers, to protect different skin types, under different UV strengths, with different exposure habits. This is a mistake many people make, and it could be dangerous.

  4. Fair enough, I didn’t make my point clearly enough. It only applies to someone who burns in an hour. But even the 10 minute person only needs an SPF30 for a 5 hour exposure which isn’t an especially common experience. And I maintain that even then frequent reapplication is still going to be a better strategy than a high initial dose. We’re talking biology here, not physics. You don’t take drugs in high levels once a week, nor eat your entire calorific needs for the day at breakfast.

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