Fast Facts About Sunscreen To Keep You Covered This Summer

15/12/2015 5:18 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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People at the Beach

The last thing you want to read is a boring science lesson on sunscreen, but the fact of the matter is that we live in a nation that revels in weekend sport, beach worshiping and an outdoorsy lifestyle in general. Couple that with Australia's long days and warm climate and the need for suncare education is a no-brainer.

Moreover, there are so many myths out there regarding 'safe' tans, SPF factors and the debate around vitamin D, that the topic can be confusing -- and it doesn't help that everyone is a self proclaimed expert. Just last week Choice revealed that some of our favourite creams don't match up to their claims, muddying the water even further.

With all that in mind, it might be time for a little refresher. Firstly, while you might hear friends talk about getting a 'base tan', there is no such thing.

"There is no safe way to tan and even a ‘base tan’ is a sign that your skin cells are trying to protect themselves from UV damage. Once DNA damage occurs, through red or darkening of the skin, it is impossible to reverse and you are at risk of skin cancer," Vanessa Rock, Skin Cancer Prevention Manager at Cancer Council NSW told The Huffington Post Australia.

So, while you may tan easily, that's not a sign that you're not at risk.

"A suntan is a sign of sun damage as your skin turns brown because the UV rays are damaging the cells below. Even if you tan easily, you are still at risk of skin cancer," Rock said.

When selecting a sunscreen to protect you from UV rays, it's important to understand what the term SPF stands for.

"SPF stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’ and a higher SPF number (i.e. SPF30+, SPF50+) means the sunscreen provides more protection against UVA and UVB than a sunscreen with a lower SPF," Rock said.

UVA and UVB are different types rays that both contribute to sun damage, so when you see that a sunscreen product is 'broad spectrum', it means that the formula protects from both UVA and UVB rays.

"UV radiation comes in different wavelengths called Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). Both UVA and UVB contribute to sunburn, skin ageing, eye damage, melanoma and other skin cancers. UVA penetrates deeply into the skin causing damage to cells, photo-ageing such as wrinkles and pigmentation, and immune-suppression. UVB penetrates the top layer of the skin causing damage to the cells and is the wavelength responsible for sunburn, a significant risk factor for skin cancer and melanoma," Rock said.

"SPF is a measure of the increase in the amount of time sunscreen allows you to be in the sun before your skin burns. For example, if your unprotected skin takes 10 minutes to burn in the summer sun, effectively applied SPF 30+ sunscreen will mean that you have 30 X 10 minutes before burning occurs."

With that logic in place some may assume that it then means that an SPF50+ product is 20 'points better' than one with an SPF factor of 30+, though confusingly, that is not the case.

"The highest SPF sunscreen available for sale in Australia is SPF50+, however this offers only marginally better protection from UVB radiation than SPF30+. SPF50+ filters out 98% of UVB radiation compared to 96.7% screened by SPF30+. Therefore, it is important to note that while offering slightly better protection, SPF50+ products are not a “suit of armour” against the dangers of the sun," Rock said.

"It is also important to remember that this level of protection is usually only achieved under laboratory conditions. Research has shown that most people do not apply the recommended amount of sunscreen or remember to regularly re-apply to achieve the stated SPF level of protection. Even SPF50+ sunscreen should be used in conjunction with other forms of sun protection such as broad-brimmed hats, clothing, and shade."

Speaking of the recommended amount, exactly how much is enough?

"People should read the label and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. As a general rule however, an average adult should use about a teaspoon for the face, neck and ears," Rock said.

Other beauty products such as moisturiser and foundation containing sunscreen offer some protection, but it's not always enough.

"Foundation and moisturisers with sunscreen are fine if you are outside for short periods. A cosmetic with an added SPF is a great way to incorporate sun protection into morning routine and provide yourself with a bit of protection first thing in the morning before you go about your normal day-to-day activity.

"However, cosmetics with a built in sunscreen are not likely to be water resistant and in many cases offer a SPF that is lower that a SPF 30+. For this reason if you are planning on actively spending time outdoors sweating or in the water, then a SPF 30, water resistant, or higher broad spectrum sunscreen is your best option," Rock said.

There is also some confusion around the different types of formulas that sunscreen comes in, as oil has traditionally been used to encourage a tan, whereas now you can get oil formulas that contain sunscreen.

"Regardless of whether the formula is a spray, cream, milk, aerosol, or oil, people should follow the manufacturer’s instructions and re-apply at least every two hours. The new standard for sunscreens introduced by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in November 2012 also means that sunscreens can no longer be labelled as 'waterproof' or 'sweat proof', as such claims are misleading. It is worth noting that they can only be labelled 'water resistant' or 'sweat resistant'," Rock said.

Its also very important to check the 'use by' date on your existing products, as they may have expired if they are from last summer. Beauty brand Alpha-H this week launched their All About SPF campaign to educate the public on reading labels, including expiry dates, among other sun facts. Over the next four months Alpha-H will be donating $2 from each sun care product sold to​ support Queensland University’s​ cutting edge, globally recognised​ skin cancer​​ research projects​.

And just because you're inside doesn't mean you're always covered, either.

"Glass reduces but does not block UV radiation, so you can still get burnt sitting next to a window. Laminated windscreens, clear or tinted film on car or on house windows can provide protection depending on the quality of the product. You can further reduce your risk by keeping windows closed as well as wearing sunscreen and shirts with a high neckline and long sleeves when driving," Rock said.

People should limit sun exposure, particularly between 10am and 3pm when UV levels reach their peak, and use a combination of sun protection measures including shade, clothing (including hats), sunscreen and sunglasses. And if you do happen to get burnt, while the pink will fade, sadly the long term effects of sunburn cannot be reversed.

"Sunburnt skin will turn red within hours and continue to develop for the next one to three days. Most people’s skin will also peel, which is the body’s way of shedding dead and damaged skin cells. The more often that a person is burnt and the more severe the sunburn is, means their risk will be higher. Although sunburn will eventually fade, long term damage to skin cells remains," Rock said.

You can check UV levels for your local area using the SunSmart UV Alert. When UV levels are three and above, sun protection should be used. Download the SunSmart UV Alert app for free at iTunes or go to

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