Myths Around Sunscreen

January 15, 2019

Skin cancer is one of Australia’s top killers with over 2000 deaths a year but a 2017 Cancer Council survey found that Australians have become increasingly misinformed about sunscreen.  

Nine out of ten Australians don’t know when they need sun protection. “People aren’t protected when they need to be,” said Heather Walker, Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Skin Cancer Committee.

40 percent of Australians are confused about what causes sunburn meaning they could unknowingly be increasing their risk of skin cancer. Craig Sinclair, Chair, Public Health Committee, Cancer Council Australia is concerned that Australians aren’t trusting sunscreen despite the evidence that it is safe. “Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. It’s time to bust the myths and get the right information out there about sun protection.”

With temperatures set to rise for the rest of January, it is important Australians are staying safe. However, sunny days are not the only time Australians are at risk of skin cancer.

The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) radiation and two types reach our skin: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Both are dangerous to unprotected skin and can cause skin cancer.

UVA is long-wave light that is responsible for roughly 95% of the UV light that reaches our skin. UVA rays are present year round during the day even when it’s cloudy. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are responsible for skin aging, wrinkling and certain skin cancers. The danger of UVA rays is that you cannot feel the effects and are referred to as the sun’s silent killers.

UVB is powerful short-wave light that is responsible for sunburn and other visible changes to the skin. The intensity of UVB rays varies depending on location, time and season but is still present year round. Unlike UVA rays UVB is more prevalent during sunny climates and is less intense during cloudy days. UVB is also more damaging at higher altitudes, so even skiers need to protect themselves.

To prepare for the rest of summer here are some common sunscreen myths busted.

Sunscreen prevents the body from absorbing vitamin D

UV light is very strong and can penetrate through glass and shirts therefore sunscreen will not affect your ability to absorb vitamin D. However over the day sunscreen loses its effectiveness and according to Cancer Council Australia when UV levels are 3 or above, most people get enough vitamin D with just a few minutes in the sun. Therefore, you’re likely to get enough vitamin D by just doing everyday activities like walking the dog.

People with darker skin do not need sunscreen

Regardless of skin type, everyone is at risk of skin cancer if they do not use proper skin protection. While those with darker skin may not burn as easily as those with fair skin, they are still at risk of exposure to large amounts of UVA rays which can lead to skin cancer.

Being in the water means you can’t get burnt

UVB rays can still penetrate water. UVB rays can reflect off the water and increase UV exposure. Another myth is that some sunscreen is waterproof. While some sunscreen is labelled as ‘water-resistant’ or ‘sweat-resistant’ it’s important to reapply when you leave the water.

Sunscreen is dangerous to use on a daily basis

In 2016, controversial chef Pete Evans claimed he never used sunscreen and couldn’t believe Australian’s were “covering themselves in poisonous chemicals.” This is false and the Cancer Council ensures that all ingredients found in sunscreen are strictly regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

While some people may have a reaction, Associate Professor Stephen Shumack, from the Australasian College of Dermatologists stressed that sensitivities to sunscreen were rare “a small number of Australians may experience sunscreen sensitivities that require follow-up with a health professional. Young babies in particular have sensitive skin – that’s why we don’t generally recommend widespread use of sunscreen in the first six months of life.”

When using cosmetics with SPF sunscreen is not necessary   

People believe that if they are using cosmetics such as foundation or moisturiser that contain SPF they are protected and do not need sunscreen. If you plan to only spend a short amount of time in the sun they are fine. Nevertheless, Cancer Council Australia stresses that if you plan to be outside for a length of time you need to be using sunscreen. Also beware that many cosmetics that offer SPF, offer protection that is much lower than the recommended SPF 30.

All sunscreen is the same

There are a lot of different sunscreens on the market and it can be hard to figure out which is the best one to use. A common misconception is that all sunscreens are the same and do the same thing. However, some sunscreens offer more protection than others. Cancer Council Australia recommends using sunscreen that is labelled broad-spectrum, water-resistant and is SPF 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum is important as it protects from both UVB and UVA rays.

It’s also important that you are applying sunscreen properly. Cancer Council recommends applying sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors. For an adult it is recommended using one teaspoon (5ml) for each arm, leg, front, back, and face (don’t forget neck and ears).

One application for the day is enough

One application a day is definitely not enough to protect against UV exposure. Always read the label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions but  Cancer Council recommends that sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and reapplied after swimming, sport, sweating or towel drying, regardless of water-resistant labelling.

Sunscreen should also not be used alone. To combat UV exposure, sunscreen should be used in combination with hats, protective clothing, sunglasses and shade.

You don’t need to wear sunscreen on a cloudy day

You can still get burnt even when it isn’t sunny. Sunburn is caused by UV radiation and is not related to temperature so it’s important to wear sunscreen and other sun protection even on cloudy, windy and cool days is the UV levels are above three.

SunSmart have a UV Alert that you can check each day to ensure you protect yourself. The UV alert can be found on the free SunSmart app.

Only sun seekers get skin cancer

A common misconception is that only those who lay in the sun all day are at risk of getting skin cancer. This is false. Here in Australia our exposure to UV radiation is quite high compared to other countries and we can be exposed to high levels of UV radiation during a range of activities including gardening, picnics, and walking.

Sunscreen never expires

Many of will have an old bottle of sunscreen they still use, but unfortunately sunscreen does have an expiry date. When sunscreen does expire you should purchase a new bottle rather than continue to use the expired one as sunscreen will not work as effectively past its expiry date according to the Cancer Council. It is also important to store it correctly as this can also affect the sunscreen’s effectiveness. Sunscreen should be stored below 30°C and out of the sun.

Sun exposure can add up over time, especially without proper sun protection so remember to:

Slip – on a shirt

Slop – on sunscreen

Slap – on a hat

Seek – shade or shelter

Slide – on some glasses

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