Sunscreen advice used to be simple: just use it. In addition, all you needed to know was the higher the SPF, the better. We have continued this way for decades. The only real difference is whether you were for or against coconut scent.
But in recent years, new schools of thought have broken the sunscreen-quo status. 21st century sunscreen experts are pondering formula, producer, recipe, country of origin and impact on the environment.
So when you are standing in the sunscreen aisle, trying to balance the good of your skin, humanity and the planet in general, "just use it" seems like a complicated demand.
When looking for a sunscreen, the Cancer Council's advice is straightforward: choose one that is broad spectrum (meaning it filters out UVA and UVB rays), water resistant and with an SPF of 30 or higher. For those who have not attended an Australian primary school obsessed with the sun, SPF stands for sun protection factor.
Be careful though. The Australian College of Dermatologists quickly adds that "the SPF should not be used as a guide for how long you can be exposed to the sun before you burn".
The president of the Cancer Council of the Cancer Council, Heather Walker, says that in addition to the SPF, broad spectrum and water resistance, "it doesn't really matter what kind of ingredients or fragrances there are." Although she suggests trying a few different formulas (milky, dry, colorful touch, the list goes on) to see what pleases. "It's about finding a formula that you like, because you're more likely to use it."
In addition, the Cancer Council wants you to use it a lot. Probably more than you are using now. The recommended amount of whole body for an adult is seven teaspoons. This is one for each arm and leg, front of the body, rear of the body and face, neck and ears.
Australian made or imported?
When it comes to skin care and cosmetic guidelines, Australians tend to look abroad. Our grandmothers loved French products, while in this century we have turned to Asia for skin care trends. But Walker says you will fight to win an Australian product, as the active ingredients in sunscreens here are regulated in a similar way to medicines.
Look for an AUST L number on the bottle. "This indicates that it is by standards that the Australian regulator says it should be."
Although Australia has some of the most stringent regulations in the world, many other countries (especially in Europe) also have very high standards.
But sunscreen is already in everything
As we become more aware of the value of sunscreen, we add it to other products, such as makeup and moisturizers. While this is great, it is not a reason to abandon your favorite broad spectrum of TGA daily.
This is because, as mentioned, you need to use a lot of sunscreen. Most of us are not applying make-up and moisturizer thick enough to provide a good level of protection. In addition, as Walker emphasizes, "cosmetics are not regulated in the same way as primary sunscreen, so they may not be considered a high standard".
This does not mean that these enriched cosmetics do not have a place. They offer great protection for the second wave; especially for accidental exposure to the sun (like when you're in the car or going out to buy lunch). So, protect your bets and use both.
And the reef?
In 2018, Hawaii passed a law that blocks the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals benzophen-3 and octinoxate more fears the ingredients aggravate coral bleaching, damage coral DNA and harm marine environments. This was the beginning of the trend towards "reef-safe" sunscreens and the fear that sunscreen was poisoning the planet. Popular beach destinations like Palau, Key West and the Virgin Islands have followed Hawaii's example and banned unsafe products for reefs.
While any threat to the planet's vulnerable reefs it is a cause for alarm, it is a little more complicated than is usually presented. James Cook University professor of marine biology, Terry Hughes, aims at the research behind the claim that sunscreen contributes to coral bleaching. He points out that only two studies analyzed the environmental impacts of sunscreens and they were not "representative of real world conditions".
Rather than worrying too much about sunscreen, he emphasizes bleaching corals to warm up stress and warm the oceans. "After Hawaii banned sunscreen, hot temperatures have returned this year, causing more coral bleaching," he told Guardian Australia.
But while research is small, it is fair to say that reefs need all the support they can get. Therefore, you can also use a reef-proof sunscreen – which is mineral-based or free from benzophen-3 and octinoxate – if you are spending time in the ocean. Just don't use this as an excuse to skip sun protection.
Mineral v chemistry
One of the biggest sources of confusion for sunscreens is the distinction between mineral and chemical formulas. The main difference between the two is that the mineral sunscreens are on top of the skin, providing a physical barrier to UV rays – which is why they are sometimes called physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that sink into the skin and absorb UV rays.
That is why so many chemical sunscreens recommend that you apply them under the moisturizer and wait 20 minutes before exposure to the sun. They need time to absorb and can react poorly to other products.
Although they offer the same end result, there are differences in use. Dermal therapist James Vivian is a fan of mineral sunscreens. He recommends them to his clients because they are often part of a multi-step skin care routine. "We encourage our customers to never use chemical sunscreen over serums and moisturizers, as this can reduce the penetration of ingredients into the skin."
So if sunscreen is one of the many products you apply every morning, the mineral may be the way to go. Mineral sunscreens are also sometimes preferred by people with sensitive skin. Although Walker notes that less than 1% of the population is actually allergic to sunscreen; most reactions are to fragrances, not to active ingredients. She recommends consulting a dermatologist and trying a few different formulas if you experience irritation.
Finally, mineral sunscreens also exclude ingredients that can harm reefs, making them a good option if you're in the ocean.
For something that is obviously good for you, the sunscreen has a small, but vocal, critique. Found mainly on unregulated health blogs, YouTube and Pinterest, they are fans of "natural" and "homemade" alternatives. It makes no sense to go into their arguments because they are disputed by virtually all doctors and skin cancer specialists. But, reflecting on the trend for homemade sunscreens, Walker is clear: “We just weren't going there. It really is not advisable. Sunscreens are tested so rigorously in Australia because we have such a high UV environment. You can't be sure what you're doing in terms of skin protection, and it's probably nothing. It is definitely a no-no. "
In addition, some have concern expressed about the role that sunscreen can play in vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D is needed to ensure calcium absorption, which results in healthy bones and muscles. Although it is possible to obtain vitamin D from food, the sun's UVB rays are the best source.
In the past, when we spent more time away, vitamin D was not something people really cared about. As we became internal creatures, there was a increase in disabilities – especially among the youngest. But several studies have shown that sunscreen has a minimal impact on vitamin D levels. Even the highly protective SPF30 formulas only stop 97% of UV exposure. No matter how much you spend, you're still absorbing vitamin D.
O Cancer Council explains that during the summer most people reach adequate levels of vitamin D through regular incidental exposure to the sun. AN a few minutes off, a few times a week, you should do so. In winter, or when the UV index is low, it is worth spending a little extra time with your arms or legs uncovered in the sun. But again, accidental exposure – like drinking coffee or watering your garden – will be enough.
The labels that matter
Amid all this noise, the main message is the same. A good sunscreen will have an SPF rating of 30 or more, an AUST number and will be waterproof. But no matter what you choose, it needs to be applied liberally and frequently. As Walker reiterates: "With any sunscreen, people dress and think they are protected to stay out for hours and hours. No sunscreen completely blocks UV, it filters it."
If you are using it with other skincare products or heading for the ocean, consider a mineral option. Otherwise, in short, the primary school rules still apply: put it on, cover it, wear a hat and stay in the shade. Simple.
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