Sunscreen: The comprehensive guide to sunscreen in Australia

It's something that is spoken a lot of in schools, and by your parents, even heavily promoted by the government, but why? 

The Australian sun is no joke, according to a staggering two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they're 70, too put that into perspective, let's say you have 2 brothers or sisters, out of the three of you, 2 of you will be diagnosed. 

Being such a large article, we thought we would help out with this helpful index:

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

750,000 Australian's are treated each year, it accounts for 80% of diagnosed cancers and the majority is caused by too much exposure to the sun. 

A special shoutout to Queensland, you're the skin cancer capital of the world according to cancer council Queensland

Not only that, but our rate of skin cancer is two-to-three times the rate of Canada, the US, and the UK. 

So, I feel it's a pretty important topic to cover, surfers, swimmers, and beachgoers need to understand the facts, how important it is, and how to stay protected.

We're going to cover some key sun safety tips, what sun cancer is, how to avoid it, getting tested and treatments, we're going to cover the different SPF values, brands and hopefully by the end of this article, you're a little more open-minded about sun safety.

What is sunscreen?

Sunscreen has two major types of "active" ingredients, organic chemical filters, and inorganic metal oxides

There are new actives which are organic particles 'chemicals' rather than 'mineral' but are in the form of particles like metal oxides.

What is SPF Sunscreen?

Sun Protection Factor or SPF is a measurement of how well a sunscreen will protect your skin from UVB rays, this is the radiation in which causes sunburns, skin damage which ultimately leads to skin cancer.

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

Photo Credit: Badger Balm

Let's say your skin would normally start to burn after about 10 minutes, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes ( 15 times longer ). 

Although this is a highly variant estimate depending on skin type, sunlight intensity and how much sunscreen has been applied SPF is not designed as a duration of exposure time, but the amount of protection from UVB exposure.

SPF ( Sun Protection Factor ) Scale:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

Which SPF sunscreen should I buy?

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

Dermatologists ( the study of skin ) recommend using 15, or 30, however, a SPF 50+ is the safer bet, this is due to a recent study that showed the majority of sunscreen users under applied by only using 1/4 to 1/2 the required and recommended amount.

Types of sunscreen

Sunscreens come in a variety of shapes, sizes and application methods, each has their own added advantages and disadvantages and you should consider all before picking the one that best suits your needs.

Lotions and milks

By far the most popular of protection is your lotions, and milk formats, this is mainly due to the fact they're the most cost-effective protection, and non-drying. However, leave your skin feeling greasy and sticky.


You'll typically find from brand to brand, that they offer both lotions, and cream formats, the cream is a thicker application to a watery lotion. You'll find that both offer the same protection and ingredients.


These are popular as they don't leave your skin feeling greasy or sticky, being an alcohol-based sunscreen. These are recommended if you have a lot of body hair. 


Typically, not recommended, but serve their purpose, although they offer the same level of protection, and perfect for hairy bodies experts find that those who use sprays don't apply enough.


The advantage of roll-on sunscreen is that they're portable and come in small formats, however, they're quite hard to evenly spread across large portions of the body.


Not ideal for large areas of the body, and not commonly sold due to their impractical application. 

Water Resistance Sunscreen

Not all sunscreens are water resistance, if you're hitting the waves then look for the label that stats this sunscreen is water resistant. Typically you'll find a "4 hour water resistance" label.

Are you using enough sun protection?

The protection of sunscreen is measured and applied at a rate of 2mg per square centimeter of skin, which equates to about 35mL or approximately 7 teaspoons for the average adult body. 

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

Photo Credit: Rise and Shine Children's National

Using teaspoon measurements or 4.9mL:

  • 1 for head and neck
  • 2 for torso
  • 1 for each arm
  • 1 for each leg

This is over the recommended amount, however, this gives you safety margins to ensure you're properly protected.

Chemical filters in sunscreen

These are the chemicals in which absorb the UV radiation and help stop the radiation from penetrating the skin. 

These range from chemicals that protect you from just UVA only, some that do UVB only and some that protect you from both UVA, and UVB. 

UVA is then divided into two, UVA1, and UVA2 protection so finding two filters in one product is not unseen.

Skin sensitivity in chemical sunscreens

The chemicals in sunscreen can cause irritation and in rare cases, allergies. If you're trying out a new sunscreen, it's important to do a patch test. Apply a small amount to your inner arm, and leave it for 24 hours to see if there was any reaction.

If you are known to react to butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, oxybenzone and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC) than stay away from chemical sun protection.

Inorganic metal oxide sunscreens

Considered as the safer of the two, metal oxide sunscreens are recommended for those with sensitive skin, however, these can also give you that "ghostly appearance" with a white shade over your skin, opposed to a more transparent chemical protection.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer occurs when your skin cells are damaged, this normally happens from overexposure to ultraviolet or otherwise known as UV radiation from the sun. It's important to note that UV rays are what causes sunburn and skin damage, not the suns heat. 

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

Photo Credit: Specialist Clinics of Australia

Clouds have been known to actually magnify UV radiation, so it's important to not only stay sun safe whilst down the beach but on a day to day basis. 

There are three main types of skin cancers:

  • Melanoma ( The most dangerous skin cancer )
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma

Both Basal, and Squamous cell carcinoma are what is referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, these are mostly found in men with nearly double the number of women diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer.

Skin Cancer Symptoms

Like any cancer, the sooner it's identified the better, in 2015, 2162 people died from skin cancer in Australia alone, early diagnosis will assist your doctor in taking the care of the issue.

If you're a regular surfer, or regularly outside than it's important to take note of your skin condition, and be familiar with marks, freckles, lumps, and bumps, this will help you look out for: 

  • Crusty, or non-healing sores
  • Lumps that are red, pale or pearly in colour
  • Spots, freckles or any moles changing in colour, thickness or shape over the period of weeks to months.

If you notice any of the above, seek immediate advice from your regular GP. 

Causes of skin cancer

It's no surprise that skin damage comes from the sun, the powerful UV radiation, but understanding the difference, and the data to the most common ways of obtaining sun cancer is important too.


This is by far, the most common way of getting a melanoma, being that 95% of the deadly melanoma comes from a simple sunburn.

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 teenagers will get sunburnt on any given summer weekend, the most notably water sports, where the suns UV rays are reflected off the water and enhanced causing an accelerated effect.

Second to water sports are cooler, or overcast days this is because we rely on the cloud coverage, or cooler weather to keep us safe, where in reality the UV is just as strong as a nice hot sunny summer afternoon.

Research has shown that sunburn isn't the only way to damage your skin cells, but regular exposure year on year is just as dangerous.


How important is having a tan body? is it that important that you neglect the big C?

More than half of Australians believe that a tan is a sign of looking healthy, this is misguided information a tan in actual fact is the complete opposite. 

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

A tan is a sign that you have been exposed to too much UV radiation from the sun or solarium in order to damage your skin cells, a tan will eventually lead to elasticity in the skin, or otherwise known as wrinkles, sagging, and yellowing discoloration as well as brown patches appearing on your skin. 

Tanning is extremely dangerous and only results in long-term negatives.


In January 2016, commercial solariums were banned in all states and territories within Australia due to the risks and a direct link to skin damage resulting in cancer.

Sunscreen: The Comprehensive Guide To Sunscreen In Australia

Solariums emit UVB, and UVA radiation which is both known to cause cancer.

Our suggestion is to avoid solariums or tanning beds in general.

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