Choosing your sunscreen

safe sunscreen

All sunscreens are not equal

Everyone knows that they should wear sunscreen not only to avoid the pain and unsightliness of burning but also to avoid potentially deadly skin cancers.  Choosing a sunscreen is just as important as remembering to wear it.

There are two types of active ingredients (the ingredients that protect our skin from the sun) in sunscreens.

  • Reflectors (physically block sun absorption)
  • Absorbers (chemically absorb the sun’s rays)

There are also other inactive ingredients in sunscreens that make up the product to make it smell nice, preserve it and make it feel nice on the skin.

Physical blockers in sunscreens

The most common physical blockers are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.  These ingredients work by placing a physical layer of mineral on our skin that blocks and reflects UVA and UVB away from our skin.

Chemical absorbers in sunscreens

Some of the most common chemical absorbers are oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor and octocrylene.  These work by absorbing UVA, UVB or both.

Choosing a sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens are favoured by those who want to apply sunscreen quickly and easily and not have it visible.  These sunscreens even come in sprays now as well as creams and lotions.  The downside to these sunscreens is that they can irritate the skin and have been linked to hormone disruption and free radical formation.  Using a sunscreen in a spray form has the potential for chemicals to be inhaled and thus cause damage to the lungs.

Physical sunscreens aren’t as popular due to the whitening effect they have on skin.  This is because they provide a physical barrier to the sun.  As such they are not usually able to be absorbed in to skin cells so don’t have the adverse effects of the chemical sunscreens.

Technology has been able to improve physical sunscreens so that they don’t make skin as white by making the particles of sunscreen smaller. There is concern however that particles that are too small (nanoparticles) can cause problems themselves through being absorbed into skin cells and the blood stream.

Physical sunscreens provide broad spectrum protection from UVA and UVB radiation.  Some chemical sunscreens protect against both of these and some protect against one or the other and so must be combined to give broad spectrum protection.

The best and safest sunscreen to use is one that comes in a lotion or cream form and contains zinc oxide in non-nano particle size.

My recommendations are MiEssence Reflect Outdoor Balm as it is not too white and not greasy.  Other brands I like are Billie Goat Soap and Little Urchins zinc sunscreens for the same reasons.

Try Miessence Reflect Outdoor Balm which is also Organic.

What is SPF (Sun Protection Factor)?

SPF tells us how well a sunscreen protects our skin.

In Australia the maximum that can be advertised is 50+.  In other countries SPF’s higher than 50 are advertised but this does not mean they are more effective.  Understanding different SPF’s is tricky.  There is not a large difference between them.

SPF 15 blocks approximately 94% of UVB rays.

SPF 30 blocks approximately 97% of UVB rays.

SPF 50 blocks approximately 98% of UVB rays.

How much sunscreen to apply and how often

Sunscreen should be applied 20-30 minutes before going out in the sun to give it time to work.

It is very important to apply enough sunscreen.  SPF is based on having a certain amount of sunscreen on our skin and applying too little means it won’t protect as well or for as long.  The following is what is suggested

  • Each limb and our front and our back require a teaspoonful each.
  • Our face, neck and ears require half a teaspoon each.

Don’t forget ears, lips and backs of hands when applying sunscreen!

Sunscreens need to be reapplied every 2-4 hours as stated on the product.  Heavy sweating, swimming or rubbing of the skin with a towel may mean earlier reapplication is necessary.

Sunscreen for babies

Protecting the precious skin of babies is especially important.

Babies under 6 months should not have their skin in direct sunlight and should be clothed and in shade to avoid the sun.  Reflective surfaces such as sand and snow can cause babies to burn as the sun is reflected back on to them.

Chemical absorber sunscreens should not be used on babies under 6 months and in some cases 12 months as high doses of the chemicals can be absorbed.

Physical blocker sunscreens can be used in babies over 6 months as these are not absorbed in to their skin.



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