Sunscreen advice from a skin specialist

Let’s face it, sunscreen isn’t as simple as it seems. With so many products on the market and a jungle of (at times conflicting) information online, it can be hard to know which sunscreen is right for you and how to use it. We’ve condensed all the need-to-knows of sunscreen into a handy Q+A, with insights from a skin cancer specialist.

Why should I wear sunscreen every day? 

If you aren’t already wearing sunscreen on the daily, you should be. The reason is simple. Wearing sunscreen is one of the most effective ways to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. According to Cancer Council Australia, roughly 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer every year and two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime.

Health professionals recommend applying sunscreen to your face every day – not just when you are out in the summer heat. Sun damage can occur no matter what time of the year it is as UV radiation is present anytime there is daylight. Even if you spend most of your days indoors or if the weather is overcast, sunscreen should have a permanent place in your daily routine. However, it should always be used with other sun-safe measures such as protective clothing.

How much sunscreen should I apply, and how often?

Skincare specialists recommend applying 5ml (about one teaspoon) of sunscreen evenly to a clean and dry face. The same amount should be applied if you are covering your whole body: 5ml for each arm and leg, body front and body back.

In order to create the optimal protective barrier for your skin, you should apply sunscreen 20 minutes before any sun exposure. In terms of reapplication throughout the day, Cancer Council suggests reapplying at least every two hours, especially if you are outdoors. This rule applies no matter what kind of sunscreen you are using, waterproof or not.

Can babies wear sunscreen?

Protecting your little ones from the sun is just as important as taking care of your own skin. However, babies have highly sensitive and absorptive skin that may react easily to ingredients commonly found in sunscreens. For this reason, it is generally not recommended to apply sunscreen to babies under the age of six months. 

For babies under twelve months, Cancer Council advises limiting direct UV exposure as much as possible. This may involve ensuring that they are placed in undercover areas while outside and are wearing a hat and other skin-covering clothing. Some parents may still feel the need to use sunscreen on their babies, in which case they should do so only on small areas of skin and pick a sunscreen that is suitable for babies.

Dad putting sunscreen on son
Remember to reapply your sunscreen every two hours © Adobe Stock

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An Expert Q+A with Dr Scott McGregor

With so many different sunscreens on the market, understanding the difference between them is far from easy. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of misinformation about sunscreen out there. We spoke with We Are Feel Good inc., an Australian skincare brand specialising in sunscreens, to clear up the confusion between mineral and chemical sunscreens from an expert’s perspective. Dr Scott McGregor, We Are Feel Good Inc. Co-founder & Skin Cancer and Cosmetic Physician, has been practising in skin cancer and cosmetic medicine since 2003. He takes us through the main differences between chemical and mineral sunscreens and how to choose the best sunscreen for your skin type. 

What is the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens?

Put simply, chemical and mineral sunscreens use different types of UV filters. For chemical sunscreens, the UV filters are specific types of chemicals. For mineral sunscreens, they are physical minerals.

Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are the most commonly used type of sunscreen. 

“The filters within sunscreen chemicals are formulated using a combination of organic chemicals that contain carbon, which act as UV filters,” Dr McGregor explains. “The active ingredients within chemical SPF tend to work by absorbing the UV light that hits the skin and converting them into heat, which is then released from the body.”

Mineral sunscreens

Mineral (or physical) sunscreens use minerals such as Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide as their UV filter.

“Modern formulations are becoming increasingly popular as they have reduced “white cast”, which mineral sunscreens can be known for leaving, and allow for an easier application,” says Dr McGregor. 

How do chemical and mineral sunscreens work?

Chemical and mineral sunscreens both work by absorbing UV rays and converting them to heat. This heat is then released into the skin in a non-harmful way. Despite this, there is a common misconception that mineral and chemical sunscreens work in different ways. Dr McGregor dispels this belief: 

“Much of the information out there describes mineral sunscreens to work differently to chemical sunscreens, in that they reflect and scatter UV light, but that’s not often the case anymore,” says Dr McGregor. “This understanding comes from historical research when mineral particles were much larger, leaving a thick “white cast” – think of the lifeguards with those iconic white noses at the beach.”

Dr McGregor explains that mineral sunscreens largely protect our skin in the same way as their chemical counterparts. “Experts current research in improving communications on sunscreen choice iterate that with new developments in formulating mineral sunscreens, physical UV filters (Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide) act in the same way as chemical UV filters, by absorbing UV light and converting them into heat.”

“It can be believed that to some extent the actives create a physical barrier that reflects or “scatters” these rays away from the skin’s surface,” says Dr McGregor. “Studies have shown that modern physical sunscreens can reflect up to 5% of UV rays, while absorbing the rest. Ultimately, mineral sunscreens often work by absorbing UV, while scattering only a small amount.”

Sunscreen application
Different types of sunscreens suit different skin types © Adobe Stock

Which sunscreen is best for me?

According to Dr McGregor, “the only thing that really matters when choosing a sunscreen is that you’re opting for one that provides broad spectrum protection, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays, with a factor 50 or higher, particularly here in Australia, and ideally one that is water resistant. Aside from that, it’s about personal preference.”

Some sunscreens are thin and easy to apply, whilst others are more heavy-duty. If you prefer a lightweight feel for everyday use, chemical sunscreens are usually the better choice.

“Chemical sunscreens use a variety of different UV filters, providing more options when choosing a sunscreen. These formulations are often thinner, which can make them more ideal for daily use.”

On the other hand, mineral sunscreens generally feel heavier on the skin. They are often the preferred choice for those with sensitive skin, as they are less likely to cause irritation due to containing fewer active ingredients than chemical sunscreens. 

“Physical sunscreens can also be effective at reducing redness and inflammation from acne prone skin and other conditions like rosacea. Many dermatologists recommend mineral sunscreen formulations due to this fact,” Dr Scott explains. “Combination filters, such as those found in chemical sunscreen ingredients, may provide more complete UV coverage than zinc-only, physical sunscreens and may feel more lightweight on your skin. They are usually water resistant for longer periods too.”

To avoid any potential irritation, Dr McGregor advises doing a patch test before applying your sunscreen to larger areas. Factors such as your personal skin type (such as oily, dry or acne-prone), and sensitivities or allergies to particular ingredients are also important to consider. 

“Really the best sunscreen, since both physical and chemical sunscreens work in the same way, is the one you’re going to wear!”

Looking for a new everyday sunscreen? We Are Feel Good inc is an Australian sunscreen and skincare brand whose products are nourishing, non-greasy and paraben-free. Because they understand that everybody’s skin type is different, they offer both chemical and mineral sunscreens in a variety of formulas and fragrances. Shop We Are Feel Good Inc.‘s sunscreens here

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