What are the most common questions I get asked about sunscreen?

Spring is here!

The days are warming up so it’s time to fly my flag as a skin cancer doctor and put sunscreen at the front of your mind.

Let’s get the good habit going!

Live the outdoor life you love knowing that you’re doing the right thing to protect your skin from the sun.

What are the most common questions I get asked about sunscreen?

1. Do I need to wear sunscreen?

More than 95% of skin cancers are directly related to UV radiation from the sun. General advice is to wear sunscreen if the UV index is over 3.  While some of you have downloaded apps or bookmarked websites that can tell you the UV index, I prefer simplicity. Protect your face every day. And if you’re going to be outdoors in the sun for more than 15-20 minutes in the middle of the day, protect all sun exposed areas.

2. How much sunscreen do I need?

Again, keep it simple. For an adult: 1 teaspoon for head and neck, 1 teaspoon per arm/leg, 1 teaspoon for front, 1 teaspoon for back. 7 teaspoons in total. Apply every 2 hours, and reapply after swimming, sweating or using a towel.

3. How do I choose the right sunscreen?

To answer this question, let’s start with what makes each sunscreen different.

‘SPF’ or Sun Protection Factor, is what indicates the protection capability of sunscreen against UV B. In days gone by, it was thought that UV B was the only dangerous ray we needed to avoid as UV B causes the skin to burn by penetrating the skin and causing DNA damage in the basal layer. So, SPF 20 would protect you in the sun for 20 times as long as it would normally take for your skin to burn.

Since then, research has shown that UV A also contributes to skin cancer. It penetrates deeper into the skin, damaging collagen (leading to most of our signs of ageing) and impacting the immune function of the skin which also leads to a higher risk of skin cancer.

This is where BROAD SPECTRUM comes in. Broad spectrum sunscreen covers against both UV A and UV B.

What’s my advice be when you’re looking for a sunscreen?

  • Make sure it’s SPF 50+
  • Make sure it’s Broad Spectrum to cover against UV A and UV B.
4. What about chemical vs mineral?

As if the choice isn’t wide enough already, there is growing debate on social media over whether chemical or mineral sunscreens are best. Chemical sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb the suns UV rays. Physical or mineral sunscreens contain active ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect the UV rays from the sun. To add to that confusion, chemical sunscreens are also known as ‘organic’ sunscreens, which makes no sense as usually organic means ‘chemical-free’!

Physical mineral sunscreens are good for sensitive skin as some chemicals can irritate sensitive skin. But in order to use these minerals, they are processed or ‘micronized’ into nano-particles to make them easier to apply than the white sun creams of yesteryear. This has caused alarm because nano-particles are known to cause toxic damage when injected into the bloodstream of rats. The good news is there is no evidence that mineral sunscreens penetrate beyond the level of our skin, so they are unlikely to cause any risk to our health.

Chemical sunscreens concern people because they are exactly that – chemical – causing some people to worry that these chemicals can be harmful or even cause cancer. This fear is typically derived from rat studies, when in fact, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, it would take a person 277 years of sunscreen use to achieve the equivalent systemic dose that was produced in the studies done on rats. In addition, even if you choose to avoid chemical sunscreens, which I am not advocating, you are likely to still encounter these same chemicals in many other products we use every day.

5. What about Vitamin D?

The old adage of ‘topping up your vitamin D’, seems to counteract what we’re being told about ‘staying out of the sun’. Vitamin D is a hormone that controls calcium levels in our bodies to ensure strong bones and muscles, among other things. It’s true that sunshine is the best source of Vitamin D production in our bodies. Most people get adequate Vitamin D by the incidental exposure to the sun through the day. However, those with darker skin, those who cover their skin for religious or cultural reasons, those who spend most of their time indoors, obese people and babies of Vitamin D deficient mums are at an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency. These people should consult their doctor to see if a Vitamin D supplement is appropriate.

To simplify the matter, it’s often easier to take Vitamin D in a supplement than it is to treat a skin cancer.

6. I never burn, so do I need sunscreen?

There is a common and pervasive misconception that the more melanin you have in your skin, the less chance you have of burning. The truth is, melanin in is not a perfect barrier, and sunscreen is just as important for people with Mediterranean or African skin.  Although melanoma is more common in those with fair skin, those with dark skin are more likely to die from melanoma because diagnoses are usually made at a later stage of the disease.

So regardless of your skin tone, protect the skin you’re in!

7. How often should I have my skin checked?

Skin cancer can be deadly, but if found early then it can be successfully treated in most cases. So while it’s important to protect your skin, it’s just as important to KNOW your skin. I advise my patients to choose a day of the month, where each month they are reminded to have a look over their skin and see if there are any new spots, or any changes to existing spots. By change I mean a visible change in size, shape or colour, or a symptomatic change such as an itching, bleeding or irritated spot.

There is currently no guideline on how often you should get a skin check. My advice is to get your skin checked in your 20s. This gives us a baseline from which to work and gives you an idea of your risk category based on where you grew up, your family history, your skin type and number and type of freckles and moles.

Following that, it may be appropriate for some to have an annual check, while others may need checks more often, again depending on risk.

8. Any final tips?

As a fair skinned medical doctor, living on the beach on the east coast of Australia, I lather my fair-skinned children in sunscreen about 300 days of the year! We have large tubes of our favourite sunscreen at dedicated ‘sunscreen stations’ at the front and back door of our house and we have a ritual of putting it on before we head out. We choose to use a chemical organic sunscreen as we have found a brand that is not oily, not gloopy, not heavy and not full of artificial fragrances – it absorbs like a moisturiser and I am confident it gives us the protection we need.

The best sunscreen for you is the one you will want to wear every day.

My advice is – find a Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ brand of sunscreen that you love. Whether it’s organic or mineral isn’t as important as the sun protection it provides for your skin. And don’t forget the basics………

Slip on a shirt, Slop on sunscreen, Slap on a hat, Seek shade, Slide on some sunnies – and don’t forget your Skin check!


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