- Sunscreen is a cream or lotion used to help protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun.
- Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going out into the sun and should be reapplied every 2 hours.
- Use sunscreen that is SPF 30 or above, broad spectrum and waterproof whenever the UV radiation level is at 3 or above.
- Apply generous amounts of sunscreen to any part of your body that is exposed to the sun.
- See your doctor if you notice any skin changes that may suggest a skin cancer.
What is sunscreen?
Sunscreen is a cream or lotion used on your skin to help protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Sunscreen is also called sunblock or sun cream.
What is sunscreen used for?
Sunscreen is used to help protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Sunlight is made up of different types of rays. One of these is called ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are different types of ultraviolet rays including ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVB rays cause sunburn while UVA rays damage skin cells causing premature aging and some types of skin cancer. Broad spectrum sunscreen helps to protect your skin from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays.
Apply sunscreen to clean, dry skin, and use enough to spread evenly on your skin surface. Use around 5mL (approximately 1 teaspoon) of sunscreen to each part of your body that is exposed to the sun.
You can buy sunscreen without a prescription in your local pharmacy or supermarket.
What are the different types of sunscreens?
Different types of sunscreens give you different levels of protection against UV rays. Some features to look for in a sunscreen include the SPF value, the type of UV rays they protect against, and how they respond to water (for example, at the beach or pool).
When you buy sunscreen, you will see a SPF number on the bottle. SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’. The SPF number represents the amount of time it takes for redness to appear on the skin compared to when no sunscreen is used. This test is done in a lab. For example, if you normally burn after 10 minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun, properly applying SPF 30 sunscreen to your skin means it will take 30 times longer (around 300 minutes) to burn.
Broad spectrum means that the sunscreen protects against the harmful rays of both UVA and UVB rays.
It is best to use sunscreen that is SPF 30 and above, broad spectrum and waterproof.
Be aware that cosmetic products such as makeup should not be used instead of sunscreen. These products do not undergo the same rigorous testing that therapeutic products do and are not regulated in Australia the way sunscreens are. Cosmetic products have different amounts of SPF protection — many have very low levels of protection.
How does sunscreen work?
Sunscreen can work in either one of two ways. Sunscreens with absorbing ingredients protect your skin by absorbing nearly all the UV radiation. Sunscreens that use scattering ingredients work by scattering or reflecting the UV rays away from your skin.
Sunscreens that are absorbent contain a variety of different chemicals and are usually invisible when applied to the skin.
Reflectant or scattering sunscreens contain minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide. They may leave a milky-white appearance on the skin.
Sunscreens come in different forms including creams, lotions and sprays. The Australian Cancer Council warns against the use of aerosol (spray) sunscreens since it is very hard to get good levels of UV protection when using them.
Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going out into the sun and should be reapplied every 2 hours. If you are swimming or exercising, remember to reapply your sunscreen more often.
When should I use sunscreen?
You should use sunscreen whenever the UV radiation level is at or above 3 and you plan to go outdoors. You can use a weather app that shows you the UV radiation level for the day. Check the UV rating for any of Australia’s capital cities at the Bureau of Meteorology website, or download the bureau’s app.
Some parts of Australia have a UV radiation level of 3 or above most days of the year. UV radiation is not affected by temperature, so there may be a high level of UV radiation on cool or cloudy days.
When should I see my doctor?
Some people develop skin rashes or reactions to sunscreen. This is rare and is usually a result of a sensitivity or allergy to one of the ingredients in the sunscreen. If you have a reaction to sunscreen, you should see your doctor and ask your pharmacist to recommend a sunscreen that works differently to the one you are sensitive to, or one that is designed for sensitive skin.
It’s important to see your doctor if you have noticed any skin changes that may suggest a skin cancer. Skin changes that may be worrying include:
- any crusty non-healing sores
- any lumps that are small, pale or pearly in colour
- freckles, moles or spots that have changed in size, colour, shape or thickness
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
Resources and support
- Read more on skin health and what to look out for to keep your skin healthy.
- Find out more ways to keep sun safe here.
- To read more on sunscreen, see the Australian Cancer Council website.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2023