Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia. The good news is that skin cancer is highly preventable. This is because UV is responsible for more than 95% of all skin cancers in Australia, which means when we protect our skin we reduce our risk.
Sunscreen reduces the amount of UV radiation reaching your skin by providing a barrier to absorb or filter UV rays away from your skin, preventing damage to the cells below.
No sunscreen provides 100% protection against UV radiation; when the UV Index is 3 or above, protect your skin in five ways: Slip on clothing that covers your back and shoulders, Slop on SPF 30 or higher sunscreen, Slap on a sun smart hat, Seek shade, and Slide on sunglasses.
What is in sunscreen?
All sunscreen ingredients in Australia are approved by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) as safe, effective, and low risk. There are two types of sunscreen ingredients that work in different ways:
- Absorbers, which use active ingredients that absorb most of the UV, and
- Reflectors which reflect or scatter most of the UV away from your skin.
Some sunscreens use both absorber and physical blocking ingredients. Regardless if you choose a sunscreen with ingredients that absorb or reflect UV, Cancer Council always recommends using a sunscreen that is SPF30 or higher.
What does ‘broad-spectrum’ sunscreen mean?
Broad spectrum means that a sunscreen provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays. UV rays from the sun reach the earth in different wavelengths called UVA and UVB. Both UVA and UVB contribute to sunburn, skin ageing, eye damage, melanoma and other skin cancers.
What do the SPF numbers on sunscreen labels mean?
SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’. A sunscreen is given an SPF number (of between 4 and 50+) after strict laboratory testing.
The higher the SPF number, the more protection the sunscreen provides against sunburn. However, the length of time it takes any one person to sunburn will be also be affected by many other things, including:
- UV levels. The higher UV levels are, the more quickly skin damage and sunburn will occur.
- A person’s skin type. Fair skin will burn more quickly than olive or dark skin.
- How well sunscreen has been applied. Most people don’t use enough sunscreen to achieve the SPF protection level stated on the label.
How should I apply sunscreen?
- Read the label and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Apply generously. Most people do not apply enough sunscreen and do not re-apply frequently enough to achieve maximum protection. Cancer Council recommends adults use about a teaspoon for the face, neck and ears; a teaspoon for each arm and leg; and a teaspoon each for the front and back of the body.
- Apply 20 minutes before going outside, to allow it to bind to your skin, and reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating or towel drying. Reapplying regularly also means you’re more likely to cover any parts of the skin you may have missed.
- When using a sunscreen for the first time, test on a small section of skin first. If irritation occurs discontinue use.
Can sunscreen cause skin allergies?
Reactions to sunscreen can be a result of a sensitivity or allergy to any of the many ingredients used in these products. Some people may have reactions to the fragrances, preservatives, chemical absorbers or another component of the sunscreen. As with all products, use of sunscreen should cease if an unusual reaction occurs. Individuals or families experiencing reactions should seek a referral to a dermatologist to understand what may have caused the reaction and gain advice on ingredients that should be avoided in the future.
What are nanoparticles?
A sunscreen that has nanoparticles means that the zinc oxide or titanium oxide particles in the sunscreen have been fragmented into an extremely small size – a nanometre is 0.000001 millimetre in size. Sunscreen with nanoparticles has become very popular in recent years because the smaller particles make the sunscreen less visible on the skin and easier to apply and provide good protection from UV radiation. To date there is no evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreen are harmful to health.
Should I use sunscreen on my baby or child?
Sunscreen is not recommended for use on babies under 6 months old. The main forms of sun protection for babies should always be protective clothing, hats and shade. Sunscreen on children should be used in conjunction with, protective clothing and hats, and shade. Always test a new sunscreen on a small area of your child’s skin first for any negative reactions. If irritation occurs discontinue use and seek advice from a Doctor.
Does sunscreen prevent vitamin D production?
Sensible sun protection when UV levels are 3 or above doesn’t put most Australians at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Regular use of sunscreen in real life has been shown to have little effect on vitamin D levels. When UV levels are 3 or above, most people need just a few minutes of sun exposure – such as walking from the office to get lunch, or hanging the washing on the line – to get enough vitamin D. Overexposure to UV is never recommended, even for people with Vitamin D deficiency. If you are concerned about your vitamin D – speak to your doctor.
Do ‘natural’ sunscreens work?
Some sunscreens may market themselves as organic or natural – these products often use physical blockers, such as zinc, to help protect against UV. Cancer Council recommends using an SPF30 or higher sunscreen that is broad spectrum, water resistant and TGA approved. If your sunscreen meets these requirements, what brand or ingredients you choose is up to you. To check if something is TGA approved, look for the reference to say that the product compiles with AS/NZS 2604:2012. Be wary of products that aren’t TGA approved, aren’t actually a sunscreen or are homemade as these products won’t have been properly tested for effectiveness and may not provide proper sun protection.
Is it okay to use sunscreen containing insect repellent?
It’s best to apply sunscreen to the skin first, let that absorb, and then use insect repellent. Insect repellent needs to evaporate in order to produce an ‘aura’ to repel insects, and if sunscreen is applied on top it may block the repellent’s ‘aura’ due to the oils and active ingredients.
Does sunscreen expire?
Yes, sunscreen does expire. Using expired sunscreen is not recommended. If a sunscreen is past its use-by-date it should be disposed of safely and a new sunscreen purchased.
For more information visit Cancer Council’s sunscreen position statement.