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About sunscreen

When to use, how to apply

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. 

Sunscreen use is one of five important ways of reducing the risk of skin cancer. The most comprehensive study of cancer prevention in Australia estimated that, in 2010, more than 1700 cases of melanoma and 14,190 squamous cell carcinomas (a common keratinocyte cancer) were prevented by long-term sunscreen use. 

What is SPF?

Sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 4 and above are listed on the Australian Register of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Products can only be listed on the register if they comply with the Australian/New Zealand Standard for sunscreen products (AS/NZS 2604:2012). The highest SPF for sunscreen available in Australia is SPF50+. The SPF number is only a guide to a sunscreen’s protection.

In laboratory conditions, when used as directed, SPF30 sunscreen filters 96.7% of UV radiation and SPF50 filters 98%. Both provide excellent protection if they are applied properly.

Applying sunscreen

Many people apply sunscreen every day, often over large areas of their body. Cancer Council recommends using sunscreen every day on days when the UV Index is forecast to be 3 or above. Sunscreen should be incorporated into your daily morning routine on these days.

When UV levels are below 3, sun protection is not recommended, unless you work outdoors, are near reflective surfaces (like snow), or outside for extended periods.

Sunscreen needs to be applied 20 minutes before going outdoors. Use a generous amount of sunscreen. When applying sunscreen, you need at least one teaspoon per limb, one for the front of the body, one for the back and one for the head. A full body application for an adult should be at least 35mL or seven teaspoons.

Many Australians apply too little sunscreen and forget to reapply. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours if you are spending time outdoors. As sunscreen can be easily wiped off, lost through perspiration you should also reapply after swimming, sweating or towel drying.

Australians shouldn't expose themselves to potentially harmful UV to get more vitamin D. Studies suggest that prolonged sun exposure doesn't cause vitamin D levels to continue to increase. When UV levels are 3 or above, most Australians get enough vitamin D with just a few minutes of sun exposure while completing day-to-day tasks such as walking to the local shops. 

Cancer Council does not recommend the use of sunscreen in babies under six months. The main forms of sun protection for babies should always be protective clothing, hats and shade.

Sunscreen application | Cancer Council Australia

What does ‘broad-spectrum’ mean?

There are different types of UV radiation. UVA radiation penetrates deep into the skin, affecting the living skin cells that lie under the skin’s surface. UVA causes long-term damage like wrinkles, blotchiness, sagging and roughening, and also contributes to skin cancer. UVB radiation penetrates the top layer of skin and is the main cause of skin damage and skin cancer. Broad-spectrum sunscreen filters both UVA and UVB radiation.

Is sunscreen safe to use?

There is clear evidence that regular use of sunscreens helps prevent skin cancer. Long-term studies of sunscreen use in Australia have found no harmful effects of regular use.

There have been questions raised about the safety of sunscreens that contain nanoparticles. The available evidence suggests that nanoparticles used in sunscreens do not pose a risk to health.

Which sunscreen should I use?

Choose a sunscreen that best suits your skin type and activity and that you find easy to reapply. If you have sensitive skin and have had a reaction to sunscreen in the past, look for fragrance-free products. If you don’t want sunscreen residue left on your hands, look for a gel.

Not all sunscreens contain the same ingredients. If your skin reacts to one sunscreen, talk to a chemist or doctor about choosing one with different ingredients.

Make sure the sunscreen is at least 30SPF, broad-spectrum and water resistant. Also check the expiry date of the sunscreen and the storage conditions recommended on the label. Most sunscreens last about two to three years and should be stored at a temperature below 30ºC.  

Be fully protected

Sunscreen should not be used as the only line of defence against UV. When the UV Index is 3 or above, be sure to protect yourself in five ways by:

  • slipping on sun protective clothing
  • slopping on SPF30 or broad-spectrum water resistant sunscreen
  • slapping on a broad brim hat
  • seeking shade when possible, and
  • sliding on sunglasses. 

Find out more about Cancer Council sunscreens