5 things to think about when buying sunscreen

You wake up in the morning and see the sun shining brightly, promising a beautiful summer day. Will you go to the beach to cool down in the water, or will you spend the afternoon at your friend’s barbecue lunch?

In any case, you are certain to need some sunscreen. You dig in your cupboard for your sunscreen that has been hibernating this winter to find it has sadly passed its expiration date. Time to buy a new bottle! Here are five things to think about before you do.

Sunscreen tips for aussies

Sunscreen or sunblock?

As the names suggest, sunscreens screen against UV rays whilst sunblocks block UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV, transforming them into less damaging radiation. These products contain ingredients such as benzophenones, cinnamates, dibenzoylmethanes and para-aminobenzoic acid. In contrast, physical sunscreens or sunblocks contain ingredients that reflect UV such as zinc and titanium oxide. Both provide protection against UVA and UVB rays, although chemical sunscreens may be more effective against UVB radiation.

The choice therefore comes down to the difference in how these products feel and the possible side-effects. Sunblocks tend to be thicker and may be more difficult to apply, sometimes leaving a white or tint residue and may cause acne. In comparison, chemical sunscreens are thinner but may feel oily depending on the formulation and may cause skin irritation. If it’s the first time you are using the product, always try it out on a small area first to see whether you get any side effects.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

Look out for sunscreens with an SPF rating and labelled “broad spectrum”. SPF is the measurement used to tell how well the sunscreen protects the skin from sun damage. When applied properly, SPF 30 filters around 96.7% of UV radiation whilst SPF 50 filters 98%. Broad spectrum means the sunscreen provides protection from UVA and UVB radiation. This is important as UVA is responsible for causing long term damage that causes melanomas and skin cancers whilst UVB causes sunburn.

No matter what skin type you are, look out for SPF 30 or higher broad spectrum sunscreen.

Water resistant

Sunscreens that are water resistant have been tested to show that they can still provide SPF 30 or 50 after the recommended time in the water.  For example if the sunscreen says SPF 30, 2 hours water resistant, this means that after 2 hours in the water, the SPF is still 30. However, like non-water resistant sunscreens, they must be reapplied regularly, usually every 2-4 hours, and especially after swimming and towelling dry as this would have rubbed of some of the sunscreen.

Use a water resistant sunscreen if you are going swimming or likely to be sweating excessively.

Sensitive skin

If you get a sensitivity or allergic reaction to one brand of sunscreen, consider trying a different brand as you may have reacted to the excipients rather than the active ingredients. If using it for the first time, trial on a small area of skin first a couple of days before your planned outdoor trip.

If you have sensitive skin, use a fragrance-free sunscreen. These are commonly labelled as toddler sunscreen or sensitive sunscreen.

All that is left is just your personal preference.  Whether you prefer a cream, lotion or gel; tube, roll-on, spray, pump or bottle; tinted or not tinted; and of course the product size.


It’s well known and studied that regular use of sunscreens helps prevent skin cancer. Always choose a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or above and provides broad spectrum protection. Water resistant sunscreen is a great option for those who will be swimming or likely be sweating excessively. If you have sensitive skin, make sure you choose a sunscreen that is fragrance-free or specific for sensitive skins. No matter what you choose, remember, sunscreen must be applied properly to be of any benefit and reapplied every 2-4 hours. Always combine slopping on sunscreen with other sun protection methods – slip on clothing, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses.

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