How do I know what sunscreen to use?

“SPF.” “Broad spectrum.” “UV-A and UV-B.” “Water resistant.” “For sensitive skin.” The list of labels and things to consider when choosing a sunscreen goes on and on. Here we explain what to look for when selecting the right sunscreen for you.

The value of a sunscreen largely comes down to its active ingredients. Despite the generic use of the terms sunblock and sunscreen, there is in fact a difference between the two. A sunblock typically contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as its active ingredient, while a sunscreen generally includes other chemicals, such as parsol 1789, which absorb UV. While both sunblock and sunscreen provide effective skin protection, sunblocks are considered gentler on sensitive skin. Many sun lotions actually contain a mixture of sun block and sunscreen. Some ingredients to consider avoiding when choosing sunscreens/blocks include vitamin A, retinol, and retinyl palmitate, as there is evidence these chemicals may speed up the skin cancer sunscreen is designed to prevent.

Beyond active ingredients, it’s useful to consider SPF. An SPF factor can be found on all sunscreen bottles in Australia. SPF is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to produce a sunburn on protected skin relative to unprotected skin. A SPF of 30 is generally recommended, as anything higher isn’t considered to provide significantly more protection. Please note SPF only relates to the blocking of UV-B rays (which cause sunburn) and not UV-A rays (which cause aging and some types of skin cancer). If you’d like to learn more about SPF, please see this blog post.[link to SPF blog]

Since none of us want to age faster than we have to, it’s a good idea to look for the ‘broad spectrum’ label when selecting sunscreen. By Australian law, ‘broad spectrum’ means protection against both UV-A and UV-B rays. Remember, SPF only refers to protection against UV-B rays. It is the UV-A rays that cause aging.

Another potential sunscreen feature that can be very useful is a form of water resistance. There are two related labels that can be found on Australian sunscreen bottles: “water resistant” and “very water-resistant.” Water resistant sunscreens should be reapplied every 40 minutes, while those claiming ‘very water-resistant’ should be reapplied every 80 minutes. Beware the skin care companies labeling their bottles as ‘water proof’, as no such thing exist. This is an important point – no sunscreens are truly waterproof. Recent law revisions are phasing these labels out because they are in fact only “very water resistant.”



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