Sun sense Sun sense

You may think you’re protecting yourself against skin cancer but it’s easy to unwittingly miss important steps. Keep reading to brush up on vital UV screening advice.

Australia is known as the sunburnt country but, with the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, Australians suffer almost as much as the land. For the past few decades, organisations like the Cancer Council have done a lot to raise awareness about the dangers of long-term exposure to the sun, which can culminate in the devastating diagnosis of skin cancer.

According to the Cancer Council, skin cancers—which consist of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, also known as non-melanoma skin cancer—account for around 80 per cent of all newly diagnosed cancers. Between 95 and 99 per cent of skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun, and about two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70.

Sunburn causes 95 per cent of melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer. But sunburn is preventable and a frontline protection is the regular application of sunscreen. When our skin is exposed to the sun, it’s penetrated by ultraviolet rays. When we tan, over time the skin cells responsible for producing pigmented melanin can also produce age spots, freckles, moles and in some cases, cancer.


How to effectively use sunscreen

Effectively using sunscreen

Products with a sun protection factor (SPF) help to protect against UV radiation. The higher the SPF number, the higher the protection, says Cancer Council Australia’s Skin Cancer Committee chair Vanessa Rock.

“Always look for a product that says broad spectrum, with an SPF of 30+,” she says. Rock stresses that to get the benefit of the SPF factor, it’s important to apply the recommended amount, because research shows people use about half of what they need to.

“The best thing to do is check what’s on the label,” she says. “We talk about using around a teaspoon of sunscreen for each limb and a teaspoon for your face.”

The Cancer Council recommends that sunscreen is applied 20 minutes before heading outside and reapplied every two hours. “That’s the sort of protection you’re covered for,” says Rock, but she notes that if you’re sweating or swimming some effectiveness may be lost or towelled off.

Choosing a sunscreen

Choosing sunscreen

There are plenty of different types of sunscreen for sale: gels, aerosols and good old-fashioned lotions and creams. Although aerosols can be effective if used correctly, they are more difficult to apply than other forms of sunscreen. So, to be extra safe, a cream or gel is likely your best bet.

Rock says people who have sensitive skin should look for products that don’t contain any perfume. “Some people are concerned their children may have a reaction to sunscreen,” she says, “but it’s probably not the chemicals in the sunscreen, it’s usually the preservatives and perfumes in certain sunscreens.”

She advises that anyone who is concerned should see a dermatologist for a thorough investigation into the potential cause of an allergic reaction. Another option is to try using a toddlers’ sunscreen, which doesn’t contain any extra preservatives and still offers the UV protection required.

Natural sunscreens that don’t contain chemicals use physical blockers like zinc to protect against UV rays. If you’re considering this type, make sure to check that it’s SPF 30+ or higher, broad spectrum, water resistant, and TGA approved. But, be careful to avoid products that aren’t TGA approved or are homemade, as they won’t have undergone rigorous testing and may not protect you from the sun.

UV protection in cosmetics

UV protection in cosmetics

Some primers, foundations and moisturisers come with an SPF number, but Rock says for guaranteed protection they need to be used in conjunction with sunscreen sold in Australia.

“We’ve had very strong regulations around sunscreen for many years through the Therapeutic Goods Administration,” she says. “The cosmetic products don’t go through the same standards testing that the sunscreen products go through, which should be a wake-up call. The main ingredients used in your moisturiser and foundation are not the chemicals to protect you from UV radiation, you can’t compare apples to apples with that.”

Although applying makeup with some UV protection is better than using nothing, she warns that people heading out for a day at the beach or any activity where they will be exposed to sun for a long period of time should put a sunscreen on under their makeup and reapply it every two hours.

Keep in mind

Keep in mind

Of course sunscreen isn’t the only protection against the sun and Rock emphasises that all Australians should apply the slip, slop, slap rule to ensure they don’t get sunburned.

“Sunscreen is just a filter,” she says. “People forget that it will never provide 100 per cent protection. We always need to use it in line with our other slip, slop, slap messages. So always wear protective clothing, always put on that broad-brimmed hat, use shade when you’re out and about and, of course, wear some sunglasses, ones that meet our Australian standards.”

“Then you just need to use sunscreen on those parts of your body that are not protected. You need to use sunscreen if you live in Australia because we’re exposed to UV on a daily basis.”


Originally published in The Costco Connection, Summer 2015. Pick up the latest copy at your local warehouse or read it online.