Sunscreen 101

Did you know that two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70? That’s a scary statistic. We know there is a very easy step to protecting our future selves from skin damage, but just how much do we actually know about the sunscreen we depend upon to do it?

Let’s hone in on what sunscreen is and how it works, to give us the best chance at avoiding sun damage, skin cancer and premature ageing.

First thing’s first: let’s discuss what you’re actually protecting yourself from.

Essentially, you need to be aware of UVA rays and UVB rays.

UVB rays are what you are most commonly protecting yourself from. They are the short-length waves that cause our skin to burn and are responsible for skin damage and cancer.

Then there are UVA rays, long-length waves that are more devious than their former counterparts. UVA rays are not filtered by the ozone and can affect us even through window glass. They do not burn the skin, as UVB rays do, but penetrate deeper than the surface of our skin, causing aging and darkening. Therefore they are also responsible for sun damage and skin cancer as well.


Know your product:

Is it broad spectrum?

We’ve all heard the term before, but did you know that not all sunscreens are classified as broad spectrum? It’s incredibly important that your next sunscreen purchase has this on the bottle.

In fact, it’s possibly the most important element of your sunscreen in general.

Remember those UVA and UVB rays we were discussing earlier?

The truth is, most sunscreen products on the shelf only protect against UVB rays, the ones that can lead to sunburn and further damage. They don’t all cover protection against UVA rays that affect your skin at a deeper level.

Only products labelled as broad spectrum protect you from both forms of rays, and you shouldn’t be buying anything else.


Do you actually know what SPF means?

It stands for Sun Protection Factor and, it turns out, is quite misunderstood.

The fact is, a sunscreen doesn’t double its effectiveness as the number gets higher, contrary to what most people believe.

It is actually the way our sunscreens are measured in terms of how long you can be out of the sun without going red.

For example, if you were to apply an SPF 15+ you would be able to be in the sun 15 x longer while staying protected than you would without it. The SPF of a product does not represent a significantly higher level of protection.

In fact, a SPF 15+ filters 93% of UV rays, while a SPF 30+ filters 97% and a SPF 50+ filters 98%.

So you might think you’re close to doubling your sun protection factor when you jump from an SPF 30+ to a SPF 50+, when you’re actually only increasing you’re protection by around 1%.


Chemical or Physical Sunscreen?

There’s quite a debate regarding which form of sunscreen is best.

It’s important to know what goes into your sunscreen so you know what you are putting on your skin. There are two main forms of sunscreen.

The first is a mineral sunscreen, usually made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These minerals act as a physical barrier and reflect the UV rays. They were once unpopular, due to the mineral elements creating a thick cream that leaves a white residue on the skin.

These days the mineral particles are ground down to micro and nano-sized; they don’t leave you looking pasty. There has been some concern as to whether the size of such particles are able to be absorbed into the skin and what the effects might be if they can. At this point in time there isn’t sufficient evidence for either.

The other option of sunscreen is chemical. Unlike the mineral ingredients that sit on top of the skin, a chemical formula is designed to sink into the skin. These ingredients then absorb the UV rays and the two then create a chemical reaction. The rays are converted into heat which is then released back out through the skin. This method is being used less and less by manufactures as there is growing concern about the body absorbing these chemicals in to the skin and the effects it can have.

Whatever the case may be, all groups of experts ascertain that some form of sunscreen is better than no form at all.


Application tips:

The trick to sunscreen application is consistency. Sun damage can occur over time and, therefore, the best form of protection is continual daily application. In fact, some experts say that the use of a SPF 15+ decreases chances of skin cancer by 50% over a person’s lifetime.

What you need to do:

You should apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you’re going into the sun. Ideally, you would apply again another 30 minutes afterbeing in the sun and then reapplying every two hours from then on.


Be mindful:

+ It can’t be stressed enough, how important buying a broad spectrum sunscreen is. It’s pointless getting one that only protects against UVB rays while you’re still at risk of damaging UVA rays.

+ Stay clear of anything claiming to be sweat-proof and water-proof. At best, they can be resistant, but should never be relied upon and the usual reapplication rules should be followed.

+ Be wary of sprays. Even though they are convenient and easy to apply, there is not enough research yet to ascertain the effects of inhalation. You may also get less coverage and, therefore, protection, when using a spray. A simple cream or lotion formula tackles both these issues.

+ If you suffer from sensitive skin and find you often react to sunscreen, a mineral formula is often your best option.


Now that you’re caught up with your sunscreen knowledge, you’re well equipped to take on the summer rays outside. But keep in mind that sun damage can occur during any season, in any kind of weather so keep make sure you apply sunscreen year-round to give yourself the best shot at minimising sun damage, premature aging and, most importantly, the risk of skin cancer in the future.

Rachel x


Photo Credit: Neutrogena Instagram

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