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VAT on sunscreen

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 18 August 2021

The petition of residents of the constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran,

Declares that sunscreen should be reclassified as an essential healthcare item and be exempted from VAT due to the vital role it plays in preventing serious health conditions such as skin cancer; notes that sunscreen is currently classified as a cosmetic product in the UK and is therefore subject to 20% VAT, which adds around £1.50 to the cost of each bottle; further that Cancer Research UK has concluded that being sunburnt once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma skin cancer, and that melanoma skin cancer incidence rates have more than doubled in the UK since the early 1990s; further that 90% of cases of melanoma skin cancer are preventable by being sun safe; further that research conducted by Tesco found that 57% of UK adults think sunscreen is too expensive and 29% said they would wear it daily if it was a little cheaper, with 31% of parents surveyed stating that they cannot always afford to apply sunscreen to the whole family, often deciding to apply it only to their children.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to remove VAT on sunscreen to make it more affordable and to encourage people to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Patricia Gibson, Official Report, 21 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1100.]


Observations from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman):

The Government thank Patricia Gibson for submitting the petition on behalf of her constituents about exempting sunscreen from VAT.

Under the current VAT rules, sun protection products are subject to the standard rate of VAT. High-factor sunscreen is on the NHS prescription list for certain conditions and therefore is provided VAT free when dispensed by a pharmacist.

The Government’s approach to this matter is to support safety campaigns that ensure that sunscreen is placed within its proper context; as one of the precautions that people can take against the harmful rays of the sun, but one that does not provide 100% protection. Advice from leading cancer charities recommends a range of steps people can take for protection, which includes avoiding long periods of exposure, staying in the shade at peak hours, and protecting themselves with a hat and sunglasses.

Expanding the scope of current VAT reliefs would impose significant additional pressure on the public finances, to which VAT makes a significant contribution. VAT raised around £130 billion in 2019-20 and helps to fund key spending priorities including on health, schools, and defence. Any loss in tax revenue would have to be balanced by a reduction in public spending, increased borrowing or increased taxation elsewhere. Finally, it is never guaranteed that any reduction in tax on a given item would be passed on by the manufacturers to the end consumer.

In addition, this request must be viewed in the context of almost £50 billion of requests for relief from VAT received since the EU referendum, and such costs would have to be balanced by increased taxes elsewhere, or reductions in Government spending.

Therefore, although the Government keep all taxes under review, there are currently no plans to reduce or remove VAT on sunscreen products.