How to pick a sunscreen

iToBoS aims to detect melanoma early, but you should also take steps to prevent it entirely. Sunscreen is an important part of your prevention toolkit, but with hundreds of options on the market, how do choose one that’s right for you?

Four essentials

There are four must-haves in any sunscreen:

  • A high sun protection factor, or SPF. This describes how much UV gets to the skin, with SPF50 allowing just 2% of UV through.
  • Broad spectrum protection, which filters both UVB and UVA rays. UVB rays are responsible for most DNA damage and sunburn; UVA rays cause premature skin ageing and can also cause some DNA damage.
  • Water resistance. No sunscreen is completely waterproof, but water resistant formulations will stick better when exercising, swimming, or in sweaty conditions.
  • Approval from your local drug approval administration. Sunscreens are regulated by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the EU, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia. These sunscreens can only contain ingredients have been tested for safety and efficacy.

After this, consider the delivery system. Sunscreen works best when you use a lot if it — Australian guidelines suggest  teaspoon for each limb, a teaspoon each for your front and back, and a teaspoon for your face and neck (yes, this will take quite a while to rub in!) Pump packs or squeeze tubes make it easy to see how much you’re using; people use far less sunscreen from a roll-on bottle. Spray-on sunscreen is even harder to use effectively. Even a light breeze can blow away a third of the sunscreen before it hits you.

Customising your choice

After you’ve hit the essentials, there are plenty of options to suit your personal needs. Sunscreens for kids, for people with acne-prone skin, or that don’t look greasy are often high on the wish-list.

Sunscreen for children

Small children are notoriously anti-sunscreen, and their parents might also worry about the effects of chemical exposure. EMA, FDA and TGA approved sunscreens are formulated to be safe for daily use, even on children. Many children’s sunscreens are specially formulated for sensitive skin that itches or burns on exposure to many body care products. You can also choose sunscreens that use zinc or titanium dioxide, which are known to be particularly unlikely to cause irritation. If your child doesn’t have sensitive skin they can use adult sunscreen too – and of course, adults with sensitive skin may prefer children’s sunscreens.

One exception to children’s sunscreens are babies under six months old, because their skin is still developing and is particularly sensitive. They should wear protective clothing, like long sleeves and a hat, and zinc or titanium dioxide sunscreens on the remaining exposed skin.

Acne-prone skin

If your skin breaks out at the drop of a hat, try sunscreens that are lotions or gels rather than creams. There are also oil-free and non-comedogenic versions to try. These can be more expensive, but acne-prone skin is often limited to the face and neck, so you can consider a cheaper, non-specialist sunscreen for the rest of your body.

Sunscreens that don’t look greasy

A survey of Australians found that greasiness is the most-disliked thing about sunscreen. If this is you, look for formulations labelled “dry-touch” or “matte finish”. Your skin may still look shiny immediately after applying it, but it should settle into a matte finish within 10-20 minutes.

When to use sunscreen

The DNA damage that leads to melanoma begins accumulating well before the UV exposure needed for a sunburn, so Australian guidelines recommend wearing sunscreen on any day where the maximum UV level is 3 or over. You can often find this on the weather bureau forecast or the SunSmart app.