A guide to sun protection and choosing the right sunscreen

Kate Swift can remember a time when summer was synonymous with sunburn.

So sun protection has become an essential part of life with three children, including Finn, nine, and Willow, seven, who do nippers training every Sunday.

Kate Swift and her three children Carter, 5, Willow, 7, and Finn, 9, apply sunscreen at Coogee Beach. Kate Swift and her three children Carter, 5, Willow, 7, and Finn, 9, apply sunscreen at Coogee Beach. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

"We always leave the house with a hat, sunscreen and appropriate clothing," Ms Swift said.

"When your kids are little, their skin is so perfect and delicate, and you quickly realise how it can burn in the harsh Australian sun.

"It's so different to when I was a kid – our school uniform didn't have a hat, and a trip to the beach meant you'd sometimes get so burnt your skin would peel, or even blister. I tried explaining that to my kids recently, and they couldn't believe it."

As summer sets in, the Cancer Council stresses sunscreen is not enough to stop sunburn, and a hat, clothing and sunglasses are also essential.

"It's not a shield of armour," said Craig Sinclair, head of the Cancer Council's public health committee.

"The intensity of UV rays, which we know cause sunburn and skin cancer, is very strong this time of year. To protect ourselves against this harsh and intense UV environment, you need all the forms of sun protection."

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With SPF 30+, SPF 50+, generic, expensive, perfumed, and spray lotions available, sunscreen is often the trickiest form of sun protection to decipher. 

How to choose the right sunscreen

Mr Sinclair said the basic criteria should be a product that is at least SPF 30+, is broad spectrum, and water resistant. It should be a product that feels comfortable because you're more likely to re-apply it.

While SPF 50+ offers more protection it can be thick or have a "ghosting" effect on the skin, deterring some people from applying it correctly.

"If it doesn't look or feel right you're better off choosing an SPF 30+, which you find easier to rub on," Mr Sinclair said.

"An SPF 30+ applied properly will always outperform an SPF 50+ applied inadequately."

How to choose a brand

Selecting a brand generally comes down to personal choice about how a sunscreen looks, feels, or smells, as all products sold in Australia are regulated.

Sunscreens must be registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, just like medicines. In order to be listed, manufacturers must test the product according to the Australian standard.

Concerns have been raised about the efficacy of some SPF 50+ products in the past, but Mr Sinclair said problems usually arise with incorrect application.

"Consumers have every right to feel confident that the sunscreen they're purchasing – whether it's a cheap generic brand or an expensive, exclusive brand – offers the sun protection that's stated on the bottle," Mr Sinclair said.

How to apply

An adult should apply about one teaspoon of cream to each limb, the torso, back and face – about 35ml in total – 20 minutes before going out in the sun.

It should be rubbed into dry, clean skin and be re-applied every two hours, or after swimming, sweating, and using a towel.

Is it safe?

Aerosol sunscreens were recently deemed useless because they cannot deliver an adequate amount of lotion.

Bannister Law has raised the possibility of a class action against Edgewell Personal Care, the makers of Banana Boat aerosols, alleging the products were marketed as having a higher SPF level than they really did.

Banana Boat "categorically refuted" those claims.

Over the years, there have been concerns about ingredients that disrupt the endocrine system and the effect of nanoparticles.

The Cancer Council says there is no evidence of chemicals used in Australian sunscreens disrupting the endocrine system.

The peak cancer advisory body also says based on the best evidence, nanoparticles used in sunscreens do not pose a health risk, though it continues to monitor the research.

Cream for kids

Lotions targeted at children are usually suitable for sensitive skin. But that doesn't mean they can't use regular sunscreen.

"Use it on a small patch of skin first and if there's no problem, then go ahead and use a typical adult formula," Mr Sinclair said.

Sunscreen should not be used on babies, who should be protected by hats, clothing, shade, and kept inside during the hottest parts of the day.

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