Cancer Council Australia

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Sunscreen FAQs




How do sunscreens work?

Sunscreen ingredients work in two ways - scattering and/or absorbing ultraviolet (UV) radiation to help stop it from reaching the skin.

Some sunscreens utilise both absorbing and scattering ingredients. Examples of scattering ingredients include Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide. UV absorbers use ingredients such as Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor and Butyl methoxy dibenzoylmethane.

What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. SPF relates to the amount of time it takes for redness to appear on the skin compared to when no product is used at all. The test is done in a laboratory.

For example, if it takes 10 minutes for unprotected skin to show redness, then an SPF30 sunscreen correctly applied, in theory, will take 30 times longer or 300 minutes to burn. However, it is hard to achieve this level of protection in real life - factors such as skin type, ultraviolet (UV) levels, swimming/drying and how much sunscreen you apply can affect the level of protection. That's why we always recommend applying liberally every two hours or after swimming, sweating or towel drying. It is also important to apply 20 minutes beforehand before being exposed to UV.

To maximise the protective benefit of sunscreen, apply as directed (see below) and whenever possible in conjunction with other sun protection measures such as protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses. When UV levels are at their highest, the most effective protection is to seek shade.

What does broad spectrum mean?

Broad spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays, the two types of harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. UVB is the principal cause of sunburn, but both UVA and UVB contribute to increased skin cancer risk.


How should I apply sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before exposure to UV in order to create the intended protective barrier. It should be applied liberally and evenly to clean and dry skin.

For an adult, the recommended application is 5ml (approximately one teaspoon) for each arm, leg, body front, body back and face (including neck and ears). That equates to a total of 35ml (approximately seven teaspoons) for a full body application.

Sunscreen should always be reapplied at least every two hours, irrespective of the water resistance of the sunscreen. Swimming, sport, sweating and towel drying can reduce the effectiveness of the product, so sunscreen should always be reapplied after these activities.

Is sunscreen enough?

Sunscreen should never be used as the only line of defence against sun damage. It is also important to remember that sunburn is caused by UV radiation, which is not related to temperature. Whenever the UV Index is 3 or above, be sure to:

  • Slip on some sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible ? this offers the best protection.
  • Slop on broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ (or higher) sunscreen.
  • Slap on a hat - broad brim or legionnaire style to protect your face, head, neck and ears.
  • Seek shade.
  • Slide on some sunglasses - make sure they meet Australian Standards.

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Can sunscreen be applied to babies?

The widespread use of sunscreen on babies under the age of six months in not generally recommended as they have very sensitive skin which may be more likely to suffer a reaction.

Cancer Council recommends keeping babies under 12 months away from direct sunlight as much as possible when UV levels are 3 or above, as their skin is more sensitive than adults'. Plan daily activities to ensure the baby is well protected from the sun and aim to minimise time outside during the middle of the day during the summer period when UV levels are at their strongest.

When this is not possible, ensure that babies are protected from the sun by shade, protective clothing and a hat. Check the baby's clothing, hat and shade positioning regularly to ensure he/she continues to be well protected from UV.

Some parents may choose to use sunscreen occasionally on small parts of their baby's skin - if that is the case, parents should be careful to choose a sunscreen that is suitable for babies, You may wish to seek the advice of a doctor or pharmacist. 

If your baby does suffer a reaction to a sunscreen, stop using the product and seek medical attention. 

For more detailed advice about sun protection, see our fact sheet: Sun protection and infants.


How are sunscreens regulated in Australia?

The manufacture of sunscreens is strictly regulated by the Australian Government's Therapeutic Goods Administration. The TGA's sunscreen regulations are among the strictest in the world. All batches of sunscreen are thoroughly tested to ensure that they are safe, the TGA-approved formula is adhered to, that the SPF claims on the bottle are exceeded and that the quantity of approved active ingredients is present before they are released to the public.

Cancer Council Australia research published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in 2015 showed that in 2010, Australians prevented more than 1,700 cases of melanoma and 14,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer thanks to regular sunscreen use over the previous decade. So we know sunscreen saves lives. But it is only one of five important measures for reducing the risk of skin cancer, along with seeking shade, slipping on protective clothing and a broadbrim hat and sliding on sunglasses.

This page has been reviewed and endorsed by the Australasian College of Dermatologists

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This page was last updated on: Friday, August 9, 2019

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