6 most common questions about sunscreen

Cancer Council NSW
Two men applying sunscreen

UV levels in Australia are high during summer so you need to take particular care when spending time outdoors.

Even mild sunburn can increase your risk of developing melanoma and the more often you are burnt and the more severe the sunburn is, the higher your risk will be. Though sunburn eventually fades, long term damage to skin cells remains.

Sunscreen can help protect your skin and it is important to use it correctly for maximum protection. Here are our answers to the most common questions about sunscreen.

How does sunscreen work?

UV index

Sunscreen reduces the amount of UV radiation reaching your skin by providing a barrier to absorb or filter UV rays away from you skin. This prevents damage to the cells below.

When UV levels are 3 or above, sunscreen should always be used with other forms of sun protections such as clothing, hats and shade.

What do SPF numbers mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects the skin from sunburn. Sunscreen is given an SPF number between 4 and 50+. The higher the number, the more protection the sunscreen provides against sunburn.

We recommend you use sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ or higher.

What does ‘broad-spectrum’ mean?

Broad spectrum means that a sunscreen provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays – two types of UV rays from the sun that reach the earth.

Both UVA and UVB contribute to sunburn, skin ageing, eye damage, melanoma and other skin cancers. UVB causes sunburn, a significant risk for melanoma, while UVA causes cellular damage that increases the risk of skin cancer as well as aging.

How do I apply sunscreen?

You should apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating or towel drying.

Apply generously. As a general rule, adults should use one teaspoon for:

  • the face, neck and ears
  • each arm and leg
  • each for the front and back of the body.

See our tips for applying for sunscreen.

Does sunscreen expire?

Sunscreen does expire so you should always check the expiration date on the bottle. Using expired sunscreen is not recommended.

You should store sunscreen below 30ºC. If it is left in excessive heat (e.g. in the glove box of a hot car or in the sun on the beach) over time, it may not be effective.

Should I use sunscreen on my baby or child?

Sunscreen for babies under six months is not recommended. Instead, the main forms of sun protection for babies should always be protective clothing, hats and shade.

Sunscreen on children should be used in conjunction with protective clothing and hats, and shade. Always test a new sunscreen on a small area of your child’s skin first for any negative reactions. If irritation occurs, discontinue use and seek advice from a Doctor.

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