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Sunburn prevention

5-minute read

Here are some tips about using sunscreen and other ways you can stay safe in the sun.

What sun protection factor (SPF) should I use?

To protect against sunburn, you should apply a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30+ or more. Children and people who are prone to sunburn should use a higher SPF. You should use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. Apply to clean, dry skin at least 20 minutes before you go outside, and then reapply every two hours.

Make sure your sunscreen has not passed its expiry date and hasn’t been stored in direct sunlight or hot temperatures such as in a hot car or by the pool. This is because sunscreen can deteriorate and not be as effective in these circumstances.

What does broad spectrum mean?

There are three types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation: UVA, UVB and UVC. Broad spectrum products provide protection against the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. UVC is blocked by the ozone layer. The SPF is a measurement of the amount of UVB protection, and if a sunscreen is labelled ‘broad spectrum’ it also offers UVA protection. It is important to note that some sunscreens are SPF50+ but are not broad spectrum. Look for ’broad spectrum’ on the product’s label.

How much sunscreen should I put on?

An average-size adult should use about one teaspoon of product on each arm and leg, on their back and on their torso. Half a teaspoon should be applied to the face and neck – including the ears and the back of the neck. Children need about half of this amount. Reapply sunscreen every two hours.

Is sunscreen the only sun protection I need?

Sunscreen should not be used to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun, and should be used in conjunction with other sun protection measures. The best way to protect yourself is to:

  • slip on some sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible
  • slop on broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF30+ sunscreen
  • slap on a hat which is broad-brimmed or legionnaire-style to protect your face, head, neck and ears
  • seek some shade
  • slide on some sunglasses, making sure they meet Australian Standards. Look for AS/NZS 2604:1998 on the label. Find more info about Australian sunscreen standard on

The new SPF 50+ sunscreen

In November 2012, the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced a new standard for sunscreens sold in Australia, increasing the maximum sun protection factor from SPF30+ to SPF50+.

There is actually little difference between SPF30+ and SPF50+ sunscreens. SPF30+ sunscreens filter about 96.7% of UVB radiation and SPF50+ sunscreens provide only marginally better coverage at 98%. The new SPF50+ sunscreen also offers improved UVA protection, but there’s no need to throw away your current sunscreen. Many existing sunscreens will still be available when the new standard comes in.

It's also important to reapply SPF50+ sunscreen every two hours, and it should still be used in conjunction with other sun protection measures.

Whatever the weather, check the UV index

UV radiation is a potential health threat that you can’t see or feel. It can be high, even on cool and overcast days, which means you can't rely on clear skies or high temperatures to determine when you need to protect yourself from the sun. Most weather services in Australia provide a daily UV intensity rating because it's not possible to judge from other weather variables.

You should also check the UV index. When it is 3 or above, a UV Alert is issued by the Bureau of Meteorology and you should use sun protection.

The UV Alert is reported on the weather page of all Australian daily newspapers, on the Bureau of Meteorology website at and on some radio and mobile weather forecasts.

You can also check the UV Alert for cities and towns across Australia with this SunSmart widget, developed by Cancer Council Australia. Select your location and find out if sun protection is required.

For smartphone users, Cancer Council Australia’s free SunSmart app is a great way to check the UV Alert when you are out and about. iPhone users can download it at the iTunes App Store, and Android users at Google Play.

Should I reapply sunscreen if I go swimming or skiing?

It's also possible to get sunburn while swimming or in the snow. This is usually caused by the sunlight reflecting off the snow, ice or water and burning your skin.

Water washes sunscreen off and the cooling effect of the water can make you think you're not getting burnt. Water also reflects UV rays, increasing your exposure. Even sunscreens labelled ‘water-resistant’ should be reapplied every two hours after going into the water.

All sunscreens will rub off through towelling and perspiration as well, so it's important to reapply it every two hours anyway.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your sunburn, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2017

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