How safe is your sunscreen?

By Jack N' Jill

Imagine if kids were born with a natural sunscreen that was released whenever their skin soaked up too much sun. No more slip, slop, slapping on the go while they wriggle about in their “I hate sunscreen so I’m-not-gonna-stand-still” dance.

In reality though? We do need sun safeguards. Though your skin produces a pigment called melanin to protect against sun exposure, the tanning that it triggers is actually a sign of skin damage. Soak up too much sun and over time, your risk of skin cancer is increased. So regardless of bugbears (it’s too sticky/stains the carseats/runs us late), sunscreen is a necessity. But that doesn’t mean all sunscreens and sunblocks are created equal. Cream or gel? SPF 30 or 50? Zinc or zinc free? To choose the best sunscreen for your lifestyle, outdoor activities, skin type and health priorities, here are some FAQs that size up important sunscreen basics:

Q: How do different UV sunrays work?

A: The ultraviolent rays from the sun have different impacts on your skin and DNA:

  • Ultraviolet A rays: are the most ageing. They penetrate the skin deeply, affecting the living skin cells, causing wrinkles and sagging and increasing the risk of skin cancer. Though windows in cars and houses block UVB rays they don’t shield you from UVA rays. UVA rays are thought to be the most harmful rays to the skin and are most intense between that peak heat of 10am – 2pm (11am-3pm during daylight saving)
  • Ultraviolet B rays: these are the burning rays that damage the skin at a more superficial level, affecting the epidermis (outer layers) of the skin, causing the ‘ouch’ factor from redness and sunburn. Most sunscreens offer better protection against UVB rays than they do against UVA rays.

And Broad Spectrum? That just means that your sunscreen filters both UVA and UVB rays. Choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen is best to maximise skin protection.

Q: What is SPF?

A: The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of sunscreen and sunblock ranges from 2 to 50+ and indicates the level of protection offered against UV rays. The higher the SPF, the greater the skin protection. But that doesn’t mean that an SPF30 is double the protection of SPF15. In fact, a sunscreen with SPF30 provides 96.7% protection while SPF15 offers 93% coverage. In recent years, sunscreens with an SPF of 50 have been released, but they offer only slightly better protection of 98%.

What ingredients should I pay particular attention to in sunscreens?

Though the evidence is not definitive (and studies have often been carried out on mice or in labs), research has shown that some sunscreen ingredients may cause allergy or speed the growth of cancerous cells or tumours. Some health professionals believe these chemicals may be ‘endocrine disrupters’. This means they could upset the important balance of hormones in the body and over time, may even contribute to the development of all kinds of health conditions, such as autoimmune problems, diabetes type 2 and cancer or other diseases linked by DNA damage. Ingredients to watch out for include:

  • PABA (Para Amino Benzoic Acid)
  • Methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate
  • Vitamin A (called retinyl palmitate)
  • Oxybenzone, which filters UV light 

Q. Is sunscreen the best sun protection available?

A:  No. It’s important to remember that no sunscreen or sunblock offers 100% protection. Nor does it protect skin against all kinds of UV damage, says the Environmental Working Group in America. The EWG is made up of scientists, lawyers and health and policy experts and they conduct independent research and reviews on consumer products like cosmetics and shampoo. In their 2016 Guide To Sunscreens Report they point out that sunscreens may be more effective at preventing sunburn than they are at preventing (unseen) damage to skin cells. In short, the SPF rating is only one part of the story. The bigger picture? Though a sunscreen with a high SPF rating like 30+ or 50+ might protect you against UVB rays and sunburn, it may be doing nothing to protect you against other sun damage.

In fact, sunscreen that mostly or only filters UVB rays could be lulling us into a false sense of security. It makes people think they can kick back in the sun for hours because sunscreen is keeping their skin safe, when all the while, the UVA rays may be causing harm in the deeper layers of our skin even though the sunscreen is preventing sunburn.

In light of this, minimising sun exposure is the best protection. You know the drill. Where possible, stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of 10am-2pm (11am-3pm during daylight saving).

When in the sun... Use pop-up cabanas and beach umbrellas, seek shade and cover up as much as possible with rashies, hats, sunnies and cotton clothing with a fairly thick weave that covers arms and legs. That doesn’t mean you should steer clear of the sun completely. We all need sunshine to help our bodies produce Vitamin D. So make sure you expose areas of your skin like bare arms to 10 minutes of sun (in summer) and around 20 minutes (in winter) – your daily sunbath should be in the morning or afternoon when the sun is lower and less intense.

Q: How do sunscreens differ from sunblocks?

A: Here’s the lowdown:

  • Sunscreens: contain chemicals that work as filters, absorbing the energy of the sun’s harmful radiation before it can affect the skin
  • Sunblocks: reflect or scatter UV radiation to prevent it reaching the skin. They often give skin a milky sheen and usually contain ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide 

Q: Do nano particles in sunscreens and sunblocks pose health risks?

A: Sunblocks or barrier sunscreens contain ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide to reflect the sun’s rays. They tend to be better tolerated by people with sensitive skin. To lessen their whitening appearance on the skin, some companies have recently reduced the size of the oxide ingredients, turning them into small nanoparticles. These are particles that are so tiny they are 800 times smaller than a strand of human hair.

There has been growing debate on whether these nanoparticles may be absorbed too deeply into the body where they can penetrate cells and disrupt their proper function. Though there is currently no proof they are dangerous, there are credible experts who believe that lack of proof is not evidence of safety. And as we may not yet be aware of the health impacts, we can’t study for what we don’t know. If you are concerned, choose a sunblock that states on the label that it is ‘nanoparticle-free’ – for the most part those claims should be true – although Friends of the Earth is currently taking legal action against two companies that they say have claimed to produce nanoparticle free sunscreen when their product in fact does contain nano-ingredients.

Be aware that sunscreens that appear to be clear when applied but contain ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide (which usually look white), are quite likely to contain nanoparticles. According to Friends of the Earth, you can be confident that sunscreens don’t contain nanoparticles if they have active ingredients that are “molecular” UV absorbers such as Octyl Methoxycinnamate, 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor and Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane.

Q: What’s the difference between types of sunscreen?  

A: Mainly their staying power and how easily they slide onto your skin.

  • Gels and roll-on varieties of sunscreen are less oily than lotions so tend to wash off more rapidly and need to be reapplied more often. The alcohol in gel sunscreens may also irritate sensitive skin, so watch for any reactions. But they are also easier for kids to apply so can be a good choice for a child if they are going to a friend’s place and you want them to be sun-safe with a minimum of fuss
  • Cream and lotion sunscreens are thicker, look milkier and have a bit more staying power and they may help moisturise the skin too. They are a better choice for anyone with skin sensitivities, such as eczema
  • Sprays: these may lead to chemicals being directly inhaled, which could trigger health problems such as asthma attacks or inflammation of the airways. As the application of sprayed-on sunscreen is thinner, it may not be as effective as slathering on a cream or lotion.

Q: Are cosmetic foundations containing sunscreen effective for sun protection?

A: Only if they contain a sufficiently high SPF rating of 30 or 50. If your foundation has a lower rating such as SPF15, it is still fine for general wear, but when you’re kicking back outdoors at a BBQ or beach day, you need to apply some additional SP30 – 50 sunscreen for optimal skin coverage.

Q: My child’s skin has sensitive skin and/or numerous health issues– what sunscreen/sunblock would be best?

A: Avoid gels and sprays because of the alcohol and choose a hypoallergenic product that is free of perfume and minimises chemicals.

Q: How much sunscreen/sunblock should I apply to my skin?

A: Don’t be stingy! Apply at least one teaspoon of sunscreen or more to each body part – your back, front, each leg, each arm and your face (including neck, ears and the skin that’s exposed where your hair parts). Ensure you slather on your sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outside so that it has time to be absorbed and offer maximum protection. Reapply every two hours.


Q: Why do I sometimes get sunburned even when wearing sunscreen? 


A: Small factors can reduce the protective powers of sunscreen including:

  • Water: swimming at the beach or pool? Then your sunscreen will gradually wash off, so choose water resistant sunscreen/sunblock and reapply it. Even if the label says is it ‘4 hours water resistant’, you still need to reapply it every two hours, says the Cancer Council
  • Perspiration: if it’s super hot or you’re exercising, increased perspiration can remove some of your sunscreen coverage
  • Wiping your face or body: rubbing your eyes after being underwater, putting goggles on and off and towel-drying your skin, all wipe some of your sunscreen away so you may need to reapply sunscreen more often than two hourly in areas like the cheeks
  • The expiry date: make sure you check this regularly; sunscreens that are out of date may not work as effectively. So note the expiry date in your diary to remind yourself when to get a new bottle.

Related topics

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

Gain more Parenting Insights at our Expos

Get your Expo tickets today! View Expo dates