Superdrug has slashed the price of its own-brand suncare products by 20%, saying it is a bid to address the link between poverty and skin cancer.
About 4,000 cases of melanoma each year in England are linked with deprivation each year, according to Cancer Research UK, with that number increasing to 25,000 for other types of skin cancer.
It has prompted calls from MPs and campaigners to scrap VAT on suncare products, though the government has said it has "no plans" to do so.
According to the British Association of Dermatologists, 40% of people in Britain reported at least one case of sunburn last year.
This could rise as the number of days per year with a UV index of three or more increases – and the cost of living crisis could make the problem even worse as more people cut back on essentials.
A recent survey carried out by Melanoma Focus found one in 10 people in the UK aren't wearing any sun cream because it is too expensive – particularly those on the very lowest of incomes.
'A step in the right direction'
Superdrug's decision to cut the price of its own-brand suncare range, Soliat, by 20% – as well as freezing prices on 41 products until the end of the year – comes after it branded sun protection a "healthcare essential".
The change means shoppers can buy Solait Sun Cream SPF50 (200ml) for £3.59 and Solait kid’s roll-on sun cream SPF50+ (75ml) for just £2.79.
Welcoming the move, Melanoma Focus CEO Susanna Daniels said: "Skin cancer, particularly melanoma skin cancer, is an extremely serious and growing issue.
Read more: A complete guide to sun protection and SPFs
"It is now the fifth most common cancer in the UK killing around 2,300 people each year. Eighty-six percent of melanomas are preventable and therefore, wearing a high SPF sunscreen is a hugely important safety measure for protecting against it.
"Anything we can do to make sunscreen more accessible and affordable will cut the overall incidence of skin cancer and could help save lives.
"This move by Superdrug is a big step in the right direction and a brilliant start to our mission to have VAT removed from all high-factor sunscreens across the UK."
Government refuses to budge
With the cost of living crisis affecting almost every aspect of people's lives, from grocery shopping to broadband connections, campaigners say now is the opportune time to slash VAT for suncare products.
While people are facing increasing pressures on their finances amid persistent inflation, Daniels has said sunscreen use should still be a top priority.
Urging No 10 to step in, she said: "The government could help make skin protection more accessible to all, regardless of income level by removing VAT from high-factor sunscreens.
"This would be a cost-effective way to cut the overall incidence of skin cancer and could help save lives."
This echoes calls from Scottish National Party MP Amy Callaghan, who is leading the VAT Burn campaign, calling on the government to make any sun cream with an SPF rating of 30 or higher to be VAT-exempt.
Leading a debate in Westminster Hall earlier this year, Callaghan, who has twice survived melanoma, said other countries including the US and Australia have already introduced similar exemptions to these products.
"It almost feels daft that I have to stand here today and make a case for it. Let us agree to work together to make this simple change for the benefit of all our skin," she added.
Backing the motion, Conservative MP Maggie Throup, who had a melanoma removed in 2019, said: "We need to remove every possible barrier that could stand in the way of people buying a life-saving product.
"At the same time, such a measure sends out the message that the government are serious about tackling all types of cancer.”
However financial secretary to the Treasury Victoria Atkins said the government had "no plans" to scrap the tax, arguing that VAT is charged on almost all products sold "over the counter", including non-prescribed medicines.
“Doctors can prescribe sunscreen, which will therefore be provided without incurring VAT, to people who suffer from certain skin conditions characterised by extreme sun sensitivity, including porphyria," she said.
Watch: Dr Paul Banwell offers tips on how to spot signs of skin cancer
"In addition, it can be prescribed to patients who have an increased risk from UV radiation because of chronic disease, therapies or procedures.”
Atkins added that while she was "really proud" that the government had removed VAT for period products in 2021, evidence shows these reductions are not being passed on to consumers.
She said VAT is "one of the main forms of revenue for the UK government" and that scrapping it for any product always presents an "incredibly difficult" trade-off.
The financial secretary urged caution over comparisons with other countries, adding: “I do not think that anyone would suggest that Scotland has the same strength of sun exposure all year round as the sunnier parts of Australia.”
She added: “I think we all accept that sunscreen is but one part of our protection against the damage that the sun can do to us.”