Sunscreen: Your questions answered

Cancer Council spokesperson Terry Slevin offers some practical and sensible advice for choosing sunscreen. 

Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, with at least two in three people diagnosed by the age of 70.
Slip, slop, slap! You’ve likely heard of this well known slogan from Cancer Council Australia but when faced with a mind-boggling array of sun protection how do you choose what’s right for you?

What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’. It’s best to choose a sunscreen that has a SPF of at least 30. These offer about 96 to 97% protection from Ultra Violet B (UVB) radiation while 50+ offers slightly higher protection at around 98%. 

“Products in Australia aren’t allowed to make a claim for protection above 50+ and it’s likely that any product claiming this is not approved by the [Australian Government] Therapeutic Goods Act,” says Slevin. 

Make sure to check that your sunscreen is broad-spectrum, which means it filters both UVA and UVB radiation (as both types of UV rays can cause sun cancer), and is within its use-by date. Also store your sunscreen under 30 degrees C or it may lose its effectiveness.

How often should I apply sunscreen?

You need to apply sunscreen at least 10 to 15 minutes before you go outside. Re-apply it every two hours or more frequently if you sweat heavily (eg. During and after strenuous exercise) or go for a swim.

How much sunscreen should I apply?

It’s suggested adults use about a teaspoon for each limb, a teaspoon for the front of the body and another teaspoon for the back. 

“The biggest mistake people make is not using enough sunscreen,” says Slevin. “Research suggests people usually apply too little sunscreen to achieve the sun protection claimed on the bottle.”

Should I slop, spray or roll?

It’s important to choose a sunscreen that you’re comfortable applying. Whether it’s a cream or a spray, the most important thing is to wear enough sunscreen and apply it often. 

“A spray can be good but if you miss bits and don’t spread it with your hand it won’t give adequate protection,” says Slevin.

Toddler with sunscreen on her face

What if I have sensitive skin? 

Finding the right sunscreen can mean a bit of trial and error but thankfully there’s a wide range on the market. 

If you get a bad reaction from your sunscreen, it may be caused by perfumes and/or additives in your product and not the ingredients that protect against UV radiation. Whatever the reason, keep the label so you can try another product with different ingredients such as an infant sunscreen or one for sensitive skin. Also keep an eye out for fragrance-free products. If all else fails, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

How safe are sunscreens?

For maximum protection, most sunscreens have a combination of physical and chemical blockers. 
  • Physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are natural minerals that deflect or block the sun’s rays from the skin’s surface. 
  • Chemical blockers absorb or filter UV radiation. 

While these formulations are effective if used properly, some people question the safety of sunscreens with chemical blockers and the nanoparticles (tiny invisible particles of metal oxides) in physical blockers. 

“While extensive testing of sunscreen has revealed no evidence of harm, it’s sensible to keep undertaking research into possible harmful effects,” says Slevin. “It’s also important to remember that the protective benefits of sunscreen against basal cell carcinomas and melanomas have been clearly demonstrated.”

The five 'S's

“And don’t forget, while sunscreen is a useful tool for sun protection, by itself it’s not enough – it’s just one part of the routine of Slip (on clothing), Slop (on sunscreen) Slap (on a hat), plus the two additional steps of Seek (shade) and Slide (on sunglasses),” says Slevin.
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