Let’s Get Real About Sunscreen: Common Myths and Misconceptions

Slip, slop, slap: It’s been an Australian summertime mantra since 1981, when a catchy television jingle launched one of the most successful health campaigns in Australian history.

Australians are still sun-conscious, but recently there’s been a loss of confidence in one of the most popular forms of sun protection: sunscreen. Myths and misconceptions abound about sunscreen, from whether or not you need to use it (hint: you do) to whether or not it actually causes cancer (unlikely).

The fact is, melanoma is still an extremely prevalent form of skin cancer in Australia, and it can affect anyone. Australian government statistics estimate that 14,320 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2018.

Don’t become a statistic; start by learning the facts about sunscreen.

How much sunscreen should you use?

More than you think. According to Cancer Council NSW, adults need about one teaspoon for each of the major areas of the body:

  • Face, neck, and ears
  • Front of body
  • Back of body
  • Each arm (from shoulder to fingertips)
  • Each leg (From hip to toes)

Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you go out into the sun or into the water, and reapply every two hours.

The truth about SPF numbers

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and it represents the fraction of the UV rays that hit your skin and cause sunburn. The higher your SPF, the more UVB rays are filtered out by your sunscreen.

UVB Rays

In other words, you can multiply the time it takes your skin to burn by the SPF number on your sunscreen. If it normally takes 15 minutes before you burn, an SPF 15 will increase that number to 225 minutes. However, you must still reapply every two hours.

And don’t be fooled into thinking you can combine SPF numbers to get a higher protection factor: SPF doesn’t work that way. Applying SPF 30 and SPF 15 doesn’t result in SPF 45; all you’re doing is doubling up on sunscreen!

Common myths about sunscreen

Separate the myths from the facts about sunscreen, so you don’t put yourself at risk unnecessarily.

I don’t need sunscreen because I’m not at risk

All Australians are at risk of skin cancer, regardless of skin type, ethnicity, family history, or where you live. Skin cancer does not discriminate and it can happen to anyone.

Sunscreen blocks the sun’s rays

Sunscreen only filters the sun’s rays; it doesn’t block them completely. You shouldn’t rely on sunscreen as your only form of protection. Wear a hat and long sleeves, and seek shade whenever possible.

Sunscreen lasts forever in the bottle

Like the milk in your fridge, sunscreen has an expiration date. Check the label to find out when it’s time to toss your sunscreen.

Sunscreen blocks vitamin D

In theory, sunscreen can lower your vitamin D levels. However, most people don’t use enough sunscreen to filter all UVB rays or they don’t use it all the time, so there is little impact on vitamin D.  

I don’t need to reapply waterproof sunscreen after swimming

No matter what, you should be reapplying sunscreen every two hours. The exception is when using mineral sunscreens, which are effective immediately.

Spray sunscreens aren’t as effective as creams

This myth has an element of truth to it. Spray sunscreen itself does the job, but it’s in the application that the effectiveness can decrease. For full coverage, you should be using one-fourth of an aerosol spray can, which most people don’t do.  

Is sunscreen safe?

The Cancer Council Australia found that 55% of Australians recognise that sunscreen is safe for daily use. Australian sunscreen is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to make sure the ingredients are safe.

For babies, who have sensitive skin, sunscreen should be used less frequently. The focus for young children and babies should be on hats, sunglasses, and clothing as sun protection.

As for the buzz that sunscreen causes cancer? No studies have found this to be true. UVA and UVB rays, on the other hand, have been linked to causing cancer, including the deadliest form—melanoma.

There is another safety factor to be aware of when considering your sunscreen, and that’s its effect on the environment. Studies suggest that oxybenzone, an active ingredient in many chemical sunscreens, has damaging effects on coral reefs. It is possible to purchase effective sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone, so keep this in mind.

What to look out for when buying sunscreen

There are two primary types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens become invisible when rubbed into the skin, while mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin and remain visible.

Common active ingredients of chemical sunscreen include oxybenzone and avobenzone, which absorb UV rays. Mineral sunscreens, like zinc, act as a barrier between the UV rays and your skin, preventing the rays from making contact.

Speaking of UV rays, there are two kinds of damaging rays to be aware of:

  • UVA: These rays cause cellular damage, which is a risk factor for skin cancer.
  • UVB: These rays give you sunburn, which is a risk factor for melanoma.

Look for a sunscreen that is labeled as ‘broad spectrum’, because this protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Otherwise, the sunscreen may only protect you against UVB rays.

Spending time in the ocean? You may also want to look for sunscreens labeled as ‘safe’ for coral reefs.

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