As skin cancer is so common in Australia, we’re all taught from a young age to Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide. But despite this, there are still many misconceptions about sunscreen.
We spoke with Dermatologist Dr Philip Tong and Cancer Council NSW’s Skin Cancer Prevention Manager Liz King to tackle some of the most common questions they receive about sunscreen.
1. Are there different types of sunscreen?
Dr Tong: Broadly speaking, there are two types of sunscreen, which work in different ways:
Absorbing sunscreens: These sunscreens use absorbing ingredients, which work to absorb nearly all of the UV radiation to protect your skin
Scattering sunscreens: These sunscreens use scattering ingredients, which reflect or scatter most of the UV radiation away from your skin.
Some sunscreens use ingredients which both absorb and scatter UV radiation. There are also different formulations which are best suited to different skin types.
2. Which sunscreen is best for me?
Liz King: I often get asked what the best sunscreen is to use. My advice is to find a sunscreen you like and to use it regularly. This is because, in Australia, all sunscreens are approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), ensuring that they are safe and effective. But the important things to look out for are:
“Broad spectrum sunscreens”, which means that the sunscreen provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Sunscreens that are SPF30 or higher.
3. How much sunscreen should I use?
Based on our research, we know that many people don’t apply sunscreen correctly. People often use too little of it, apply it unevenly or forget to reapply it.
Roughly speaking, you should use a generous amount of sunscreen on each part of your body that is exposed to the sun. For adults, that means about a teaspoon (5mls) of sunscreen as evenly as possible across your face and neck (don’t forget behind the ears), your arms and legs, and your chest and back (we also recommend getting a rash shirt). All up, that’s about 35mls of sunscreen.
We recommend applying sunscreen 20 minutes before you head outdoors and reapplying every two hours. But if you’re swimming or exercising, we recommend reapplying more often, as sunscreen can easily be wiped off or get lost when you sweat or swim.
4. Is sunscreen alone enough to protect me?
Liz King: Sunscreen is not a suit of armour. It should never be used as the only form of sun protection. Rather, it should always be used with other sun protection measures. This means wearing protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses and using shade when it is available.
5. If my makeup has SPF, am I all good?
Dr Tong: Cosmetic products which contain sunscreen are not considered to be a therapeutic product and are therefore not regulated in Australia. They vary in how much SPF protection they have but it can often be very little. Because of this, they shouldn’t be relied on to protect your skin from the sun.
Some people mistakenly believe an SPF20 moisturiser and an SPF10 foundation can be used together to form a protection of SPF30. This is not true. You will only be protected to the level of the highest SPF product – in this example, SPF20, which is not high enough.
If you plan to wear sunscreen and moisturisers or cosmetics, it’s best to apply your sunscreen first – on dry, clean skin. This will allow the sunscreen to disperse effectively. And just like sunscreen, the SPF in cosmetics reduces with time, so remember to reapply sunscreen when you are outdoors!
6. Are natural sunscreens better for me?
Liz King: While recipes for homemade sunscreens can be easily found online, there is no way of knowing that they offer sufficient protection from Australia’s harsh UV radiation.
Cancer Council does not recommend making or using homemade sunscreen. Instead, leave sunscreen manufacture to the experts so you know that what you’re using is safe and effective. All sunscreens in Australia are regulated by the TGA to ensure they are safe and effective and comply with our rigorous standards.
There is clear evidence that regular use of sunscreen helps to prevent skin cancer. Long-term studies of sunscreen use in Australia have found no harmful effects of regular use.
7. Do you have to wear sunscreen when it’s a cold, windy or cloudy day?
Dr Tong: UV radiation from the sun is what leads to skin cancers. I’d always recommend using sunscreen whenever the UV level is at 3 or above. So, I’d recommend using a weather app that shows you the UV index. In many parts of NSW, the UV index can stay above 3 for most of the year. Despite what many people think, UV radiation is not affected by temperature. A cool or overcast day can have similar UV levels to a warm, sunny day, as UV radiation can penetrate clouds and may even be more intense due to reflection off the clouds.
8. Does sunscreen stop you from producing vitamin D?
Liz King: Studies have shown that daily sunscreen use, coupled with other sun protection measures when outdoors does not compromise the synthesis of vitamin D in healthy people.
In fact, when UV levels are three or above, most people need just a few minutes of sun exposure to get enough vitamin D. So, you can get your vitamin D fix on a short walk at lunchtime or while you’re out hanging your washing. When you are outdoors for more than a few minutes, we recommend using a combination of sun protection measures to reduce your risk of skin cancer.
If you have concerns about your vitamin D levels, see your doctor to get specific advice relevant to your situation.
Whether it’s the dead of winter or the height of summer, remember to protect your skin and make sunscreen a part of your routine, whenever the UV levels are 3 or above.