Australians can now buy sunscreens with an SPF50+ label. How much more protection does SPF50+ offer compared to the SPF30+ standards that have been around since the 1990s? Here’s the skinny on SPF protection and sunscreens. 

Australians have good reason to worry about sun protection. According to the Melanoma Institute, Australia has such a high incidence of melanoma that it’s referred to as Australia’s national cancer. Melanoma is responsible for 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths in Australia. More than 1,500 Australians die each year from melanoma. Our chances of getting melanoma are the highest in the world. One in 17 Aussies will be diagnosed with it before they reach 85.

While many risk factors play a role in melanoma, it is estimated that ninety-five percent of melanomas are caused by sunburn. Fair Celtic skin and high levels of sun exposure make us extremely vulnerable to sun damage. But despite all efforts to improve awareness of sun protection—and those numerous slip, slop, slap messages seared into our national consciousness—Australian melanoma rates doubled between 1986 and 2006 and continue to rise.

The rising incidence of melanoma is a good reason to talk more about sun protection. “Slip-Slop-Slap” calls for protective clothing, sunscreen protection and wearing a hat. But if you really want to reduce your sun exposure, your best bet is to stay out of the sun. When you’re in the sun, along with your suitable clothing and accessories, wear sunscreen.

Experts agree that Aussies do not use sunscreen as they should. Many don’t use it at all, and those who do are not applying nearly enough to protect themselves from the sun.

How SPF50+ protects us

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, a measure of protection offered by a sunscreen. The sunscreens we have been using for the past 20 years are labelled SPF30+. That means any sunscreen sold in Australia is required to have a sun protection factor exceeding 30. Because of variations in production and testing, tests are always carried out for a much higher factor than 30.

At SPF30+ the sunscreen blocks 96.7 percent of the harmful ultraviolet B (UVB) rays of the sun that cause sunburn and skin cancer. Cancer Council Australia says that SPF50+ “offers only marginally better protection” from UVB radiation than SPF30+ sunscreens. SPF50+ filters out 98 percent of UVB radiation compared to the 96.7 percent blocked by SPF30+.

In 2010, at the time the new standard was being discussed, Cancer Council spokesman, Craig Sinclair, who also chaired the Standards Australia’s sunscreen committee, told Sydney Morning Herald that ”Our view is that 30+ is all that’s necessary.” He also stated that ”By going to a higher SPF we’re not adding a significantly better product in terms of protection, and we’re concerned that people will think they have a shield of armour on.”

It is certainly true that the higher SPF could make consumers believe (mistakenly) that they have a whole lot more protection against the sun than they actually do. But some professionals—including the dermatologists and pharmacists who sat on the standards committee at the time—hold a different view. They point out that what matters most is not what is filtered out, but what the sunscreen allows to get in. Going by the numbers, a sunscreen with SPF50 lets in 2 percent of light. If you compare that with the 3.3 percent attributed to SPF30 sunscreen, the difference is an increase of 65 percent. Most people who care about sun exposure would appreciate the added level of protection afforded by the SPF50+ sunscreens.

It is not just the SPF that matters…

To ensure your safety, check that your sunscreen is broad spectrum and water-resistant. If it is, slather the stuff on liberally. And repeat every few hours.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens, regardless of SPF, are those that filter out both UVA and UVB rays. While UVB is the principal cause of sunburn, there is growing evidence that both UVA and UVB contribute to skin cancer risk.

Pick a water-resistant sunscreen. This is especially important if you swim, exercise or work in the sun. Water-resistant sunscreens offer better protection because they do not come off easily in water or sweat. If you towel yourself dry after being in the sun, reapply your sunscreen. Towelling removes the protective layer. If you remain in the sun for long periods, reapply sunscreen every couple of hours.

The SPF protection levels in the labels apply only if you use sunscreen in sufficient volumes. So how much is enough? Think in terms of teaspoons. On average, you need to apply a bit more than a teaspoon each for each leg, for your chest and stomach and on your back. Just over half a teaspoon would do for each arm, for the face, back of the neck and the ears. So if you wear a bikini, at least eight teaspoons of sunscreen need to be applied each time for adequate protection. Most people do not apply that much sunscreen at one go. Do you? You can use the SunSmart calculator or the web app to figure out how much sunscreen you need, depending on what you are wearing and other variables.

When we apply just one coat of sunscreen, we miss a few spots, which are then exposed to the sun. This is why applying two coats is a good idea, especially if you are out in the sun a lot. In the summer, at the beach, reapply every couple of hours.

Sure it’s good for you, but slathering on sunscreen is not something most people enjoy. Studies from the UK show that people are more likely to wear a sunscreen if they like how it feels on their skin. When picking a sunscreen, choose one that feels great. This may mean different members of the family wanting different sunscreens, but, for the sake of proper sun protection, it’s worth the extra cost.

Some cosmetics come with a built in sunscreen, but the level of protection they offer is minimal. They’d do if your sun exposure is short, like crossing the street on your way to lunch and back. But those who are exposed to the sun for more than a few minutes at a time should wear regular sunscreen for proper protection. You may also want to find a lip balm that contains sunscreen.

There are special sunscreens for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions like eczema and rosacea.

Sunscreen or not, SPF50+ or SPF30, everyone should wear sun smart clothing, shades and hats. Sunscreen is not a suit of armour, as the Cancer Council likes to point out. It should really be the last measure of protection, not the first. And what is the best kind sun protection?  What part of “stay out of the sun” don’t you understand?

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