Sunscreen 101: Common Questions Answered

Sunscreen can be confusing. From physical vs chemical to how often to apply sunblock and what supplements prevent sun damage. We answer the common questions and clear up the misconceptions.

Slip, slop, slap – it’s been drilled into us since day one but somehow New Zealand still has one of the highest incidence rates of melanoma skin cancer in the world. With over 4,000 Kiwis diagnosed each year and summer on the way, we thought it was about time we consulted the experts for the lowdown on sun safety and to shed light on some longstanding myths.

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Decoding the Lingo

The best line of defence against skin cancer, without avoiding exposure all together, is undoubtedly sunscreen or sunblock. Given how thin our ozone layer is and therefore our susceptibility to burn, it’s crucial that we always have one within reach. With an overwhelming choice of sun protection out there, navigating the sun care aisle can be a challenge at the best of times.

Below we answer and debunk some of the most common questions and misconceptions when it comes to sun safety.

So many terms, so much confusion

Sunblock vs. sunscreen vs. physical vs. chemical vs. mineral – what does it all mean?!

With so many terms bandied about and used interchangeably, it’s no wonder you’re hella confused.

Generally, when products are branded ‘sunblock’ they’re referring to the physical or mineral kind, while ‘sunscreen’ refers to the chemical type.

Sunblock/physical sun blockers are formulated with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide to shield UV radiation from reaching the skin. It’s like having a concrete wall between you and the sun. Whereas sunscreens/chemical lotions create a chemical barrier more like a window screen, which absorbs UV radiation before it reaches the dermal layer of your skin. Physical/mineral sun protectants don’t penetrate the skin, so the body doesn’t absorb it, which makes them more suitable for those with sensitive. The downside? They tend to remain visible when applied and are a thicker consistency, which is harder to wash off, while sunscreen is generally transparent and invisible.

What actually is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a relative measure of how long sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet radiation. Outside Australasia the calculate time before we burn is 20 minutes, while inside Australasia it’s seven minutes. Yikes. In short, the higher the SPF the longer protection we have.

Sunscreen storage 101

Keep it cool! Avoid leaving your sunscreen in direct sunlight or in environments above room temperature (e.g. a hot car). Ingredients can lose their potency and go bad, especially if they don’t contain preservatives. Make sure to store sunscreen in a cool, dark place.

Do darker skins need sunscreen?

Of course! Although those with fairer skin are most at risk of sunburn, everyone regardless of race or ethnicity, is subject to sun damage. While darker skins may not show visible signs of damage such as sunburn, it doesn’t mean the rays aren’t harming the skin and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

sunscreen for dark skin
It’s a common misconception that only fair complexions are affected by the sun / @badgirlriri

SPF15 isn’t enough protection – true or false?

Over this side of the world this is true. While the merits of SPFs above 50 are widely debated, experts agree that a minimum of SPF30 should always be applied before sun exposure. However, the key is in application – how little and how often. Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before heading outside, this gives the sunscreen time to form a physical protective layer on your skin and always adhere to the seven-teaspoon rule.

At least…

  • one teaspoon per limb
  • one teaspoon per front and back of body
  • one teaspoon for the face/neck/ ears

Supplements for prevention – fact or fiction?

You’ve heard of beauty supplements but what about sun supplements? While they won’t prevent sunburn, they can prevent and reverse UV damage caused by the sun. Since sunscreen can wear off within a few hours of application, some supplements are great to add to your skincare arsenal. Here’s our top picks…

Vitamin C

Fun fact: pairing vitamin C with broad spectrum sunscreen can enhance its efficacy. Vitamin C also defends against the sun’s damage to collagen and elastin, the proteins that keep skin firm and supple, and improve existing signs of aging. Vitamin c helps to block damage before it even happens by neutralising free radicals. In a nutshell, vitamin c is a do-all supplement for beautiful, radiant skin.

Vitamin B3

Research has found vitamin B3 supplements can help prevent skin cancers and precancers when taken twice daily. Studies found that vitamin B3 supplements reduced the rate of new squamous-cell and basal-cell skin cancers by 23% in patients at high risk for skin cancer. Beauty-wise it’s been found to be a potent anti-ager that works to minimise dark spots and hyperpigmentation, as well as boost skin elasticity.

Main image: @haileybieber

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