Sunscreen: what’s it all about

In Australia most people have grown up with sunscreen as part of their lives, generally as something slathered on them by their mum while at the beach to protect them from burning.  But what most people don’t realise is that when the product was released in Australian in the 1930’s its actual designed was to encourage a tan by reducing burning. This was back in the era when a tan was thought to be a good thing.   We have of course come a long way from that time in our understanding UV radiation and our risk of skin cancer.  Sunscreens today in Australia are marketed to protect the skin from the damaging effects of the suns UV radiation.

Yet even though sunscreen in Australia has changed over time we still don’t seem to have a great understanding of how it works and when we should use it.  There are two basic types of sunscreen; those that block and those that absorb.

Blocking sunscreens use chemicals such as zinc oxide to scatter the radiation away from the skin.  The chemicals tend to be micro-fine nanoparticles so that the sunscreen can be applied and not leave a white residue.  Absorbing sunscreens use chemicals such as oxybenzone and salicylates to absorb the UV radiation and prevent it from reaching the skin.  In some cases both blocking and absorbing chemicals are combined in one sunscreen to achieve high levels of sun protection.

The measure of the effectiveness of sunscreen is measured by the sun protection factor (SPF) rating.  The higher the value the higher the level of protection offered.  Sunscreens with a SPF 30+ are very popular however development now sees sunscreens with a SPF of 50+ readily available in the marketplace.

Most sunscreens also offer broad spectrum coverage.  This means that the sunscreen offers protection from both UV A and UV B types of radiation.  UV A is the type that tends to cause aging and wrinkling of the skin, whereas UV B tends to cause many of the skin cancers.  Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum may not be offering you the protection that you think they are, so it is important to make your selection understanding this.

Sunscreen alone may not provide the highest level of sun protection.  Clothing with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) offers much greater and more consistent protection than just sunscreen.  Sunscreen also cannot effectively be applied to the scalp, unless you are bald, making a hat an important accessory.  Most importantly sunscreen tends to rub or sweat off, requiring frequent reapplication.  Every two hours is recommended for reapplication.    However it is fantastic when used with other sun protection measures to protect areas like the face, neck, ears and hands that cannot easily be covered by clothing or a hat.  And it is easy to have in your car, toolbox or bag, which makes it a convenient option if you find yourself outside without the right protective clothing.

When applying your sunscreen think of painting a wall.  One coat is good but unlikely to really give great coverage.  Two coats are better and more likely to reduce your risk of skin damage.  And being generous with your sunscreen is important.  It is suggested that each limb requires about one teaspoon of sunscreen for each application.

There is no doubt that sunscreen is a great tool to protect us from the sun, and when used in conjunction with other protective measures like slipping on a shirt, slapping on a hat or seeking shade it can seriously reduce our risk of skin cancer in the future.

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UV observation courtesy of ARPANSA

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