Sun protection, sunscreen and sunblock: All your questions answered
Slip, slop, slap – it’s been drilled into us since day one but somehow New Zealand still has one of the highest incidence rates of melanoma skin cancer in the world. With over 4,000 Kiwis diagnosed each year and summer on the way, we thought it was about time we consulted the experts for the lowdown on sun safety and to shed light on some longstanding myths.
Decoding the Lingo
The best line of defence against skin cancer, without avoiding exposure all together, is undoubtedly sunscreen or sunblock. Given how thin our ozone layer is and therefore our susceptibility to burn, it’s crucial that we always have one within reach. With an overwhelming choice of sun protection out there, navigating the sun care aisle can be a challenge at the best of times, which is why we’ve made things easier.
What’s the difference between sunblock vs. sunscreen?
There are two types of protective lotions – chemical and physical says Dr Maria DS Reeves, Founder and Director of the Claris Group.
Sunblock, the physical kind, is formulated to shield UV radiation from reaching the skin. “It’s like having a concrete wall between you and the sun,” explains Dr Reeves. “Whereas sunscreens create a chemical barrier more like a window screen, which absorbs UV radiation before it reaches the dermal layer of your skin.” Sunblock tends to remain visible when applied and is a thicker consistency that is harder to wash off, while sunscreen is generally transparent and invisible.
Not all sun protection is created equal cautions Fiona Mawley, manager of the Cancer Society's commercial branch, Daffodil Enterprises. “We strongly recommend buying a broad spectrum sunblock or sunscreen in order to protect against both UVA (longer wave) and UVB (shorter wave) rays.”
bh loves: Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Lotion SPF50+, $19.99; NIVEA Sun Ultra Sport Cooling Sunscreen Trigger Spray SPF50+, $23.95; La Roche-Posay Anthelios Nutritive Oil SPF50, $39.99
What actually is SPF?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a relative measure of how long sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet radiation. “Outside Australasia the calculate time before we burn is 20 minutes, while inside Australasia it’s seven minutes,” says Dr Reeves.
SPF 15 means 15 x seven minutes = 105 minutes of protection.
In short, the higher the SPF the longer protection we have.
Do I need to use sunscreen if I have dark skin?
Of course! Although those with fairer skin are most at risk of sunburn, everyone regardless of race or ethnicity, is subject to sun damage. While darker skins may not show visible signs of damage such as sunburn, it doesn’t mean the rays aren’t harming the skin and increasing the risk of skin cancer.
Will using sunblock or sunscreen mean I won’t get enough vitamin D?
No. While we do need vitamin D, it only takes a small amount of sun exposure to get a sufficient level and because most people don’t apply sun protection properly or frequently enough, this is a not the case. You can also get your recommended dose through diet and supplements.
Can you burn outside of peak sun hours?
False – Dermatologists are unanimous that this is a very common and dangerous misconception. The probability of burning is definitely worse when the sun is directly overhead, from about 10 am to 3 pm but tanning at any time of day is unsafe
Is anything above SPF15 a waste?
False - While the merits of SPFs above 50 are widely debated, experts agree that a minimum of SPF30 should always be applied before sun exposure. Mawley says the key is in application - how little and how often. “Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before heading outside, this gives the sunscreen time to form a physical protective layer on your skin and always adhere to the seven teaspoon rule.”
How much sunscreen should I apply?
Always adhere to the seven teaspoon rule;
• one teaspoon per limb
• one teaspoon per front and back of body
• one teaspoon for the face/neck/ ears
If I use waterproof or sweat-proof formulas do I still need to re-apply?
False - Waterproof is no longer able to be used as a claim under New Zealand’s sunscreen standards. “A water resistance claim of up to two or four hours means the sunscreen should retain its full SPF protection even after two hours in the water, although every activity is different and results may vary,” explains Mawley. It is recommended to re-apply sunscreen after swimming, towelling and excessive sweating.
What sunscreen or sunblock are you taking away this summer?