Fifty shades of burnt

Now that the weather is getting warmer, it’s time to talk about sunscreen.

You’ll notice from my profile picture that I am pale. Redhead. Ginger. Ranga. Whatever you want to call me, the bottom line is, the sun and I don’t get along.

One of my typical summer outfits. Source: author’s own.

I’m not sure if my decision to move to the sunniest continent on earth was the best for my skin’s health, but while I’m here I’ll make sure I keep myself protected. And the government wants to keep all Australians protected too.

Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. The cost of skin cancer in Australia is immense. Hospitalisations due to skin cancer make up one quarter of all cancer hospitalisations.

But how many Australian adults know how sunscreen works? And how much sunscreen is recommended for application? It’s almost definitely more than you’ve been using.

Sunscreen basics

Go find an old sunscreen bottle, flip it around, and read the ingredients list. It’s usually a long, tongue twisting list.

Never fear, those lists don’t have to be so cryptic. The basic sunscreen ingredients are:

  1. The molecules that provide the protection from the sun’s rays.
  2. Preservatives to keep the protection molecules working for a long time. Sunscreen is usually designed to stay stable for up to 3 years.
  3. Emulsifiers, or ingredients that keep the ingredients of a sunscreen mixed together.
  4. Added fragrance or dyes like those that give some sunscreens that nostalgic smell I know too well.

Molecular shield

There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. They differ in the types of compounds that provide protection from the sun.

Chemical sunscreens are organic. But not vegetable organic, chemistry organic.

Organic food and organic chemistry. I don’t recommend eating your sunscreen. Source: Wikimedia commons via Alanthebox and Gabdal

In chemistry, the term organic means carbon based. These molecules in chemical sunscreens provide protection by absorbing light.

Physical sunscreens are inorganic, or not carbon based. They use metal particles containing iron and aluminium for protection. Depending on the size of the metal particle they can reflect or absorb light.

The metal particles in the sunscreen reflect light in a way that creates that classic white nose. The bigger the particle the whiter the nose. Source: Pixabay via chezbeate

We used to think these particles only reflected light, or blocked it completely from reaching the skin. These products were often called sunblock. But this term is now banned in Australia because it is misleading. No type of sunscreen can block or absorb light 100%. However, the names sunscreen and sunblock are often used interchangeably.

Harmful rays

Not all light energy is harmful to our skin. We can’t get sunburned sitting indoors next to a lamp thank goodness. The type of light that causes skin damage is ultraviolet (UV) light.

Damage from UV light comes in many forms from sunburn and tans to premature wrinkles and cancer. UV light itself is split up into three different forms, or wavelengths: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Luckily, earth’s atmosphere filters out UVC so we don’t have to worry about it.

When sunscreen was first developed it only blocked UVB light, because UVB light is the type that causes sunburn. We thought if we prevent burns we prevent cancer. However, it’s not so simple. Both UVA and UVB light contribute to skin cancer.

While UVB light causes damage to the outer layers of skin, UVA light penetrates deeper. UVA light causes premature aging, wrinkles, tanning.

Don’t be fooled, sunburn does not turn into a tan. It just seems that way because you can’t see the tan until after your sunburn fades. And trying to get a base tan for protection the rest of the summer doesn’t work. A natural tan only provides between 2-4 SPF. There is no such thing as a healthy tan as it doesn’t provide any long-term defence against cancer. The reality is, that no matter your skin tone, you need to protect your skin.

What is SPF anyway?

Those numbers on the front of sunscreen bottles can give you an idea of how much protection it provides. The sun protection factor (SPF) is a general measure of how long you can be out in the sun before reapplying. Take my skin for example. Unprotected, I start burning in only 5 minutes. If I’m wearing SPF 15, theoretically I won’t start burning for 15 times as long. I say theoretically because most people, including me, don’t apply the same amount of sunscreen as researchers do during testing. That’s why it’s recommended you reapply every 2 hours.

When sunscreen is tested to determine its SPF, researchers apply 2 milligrams of sunscreen per square centimetre of skin. This translates to about 30 millilitres or one full shot glass of sunscreen to cover all the exposed areas of your body.

I don’t recommend drinking your sunscreen either. Source: Flickr via Rob Nguyen

Do you still have that sunscreen bottle next to you? I dare you measure out a full 30 millilitres of sunscreen. I can almost guarantee you’ve never put that much sunscreen on at once.


12 Responses to “Fifty shades of burnt”

  1. Rob Dabal says:

    Great article Kellen and as a fellow ranga I fully empathise.

    Following on from Yangs comment/question, yes we burn in winter. It depends a bit on where we are geographically as UV intensity can be greater at lower latitudes. We are more likely to get burnt in Tasmania on a cool patchy day than in northern Australia on a warm sunny day.

  2. Soumya Mukherjee says:

    Lovely post….. I come from tropics ……… for me sunscreen is a necessity …. lovely insight on sunscreen.

  3. aszetey says:

    This is a really awesome article and I loved that you used your own photo in the blog, it really made it feel more personally connected to the story.

  4. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Hi Yang, glad you liked the post! The cancer council says you should wear sunscreen, or use other protection, when the UV index is 3 or higher. A great resource is MyUV which will show the UV index all around Australia. So if you’re going to be outside for a while and the UV index is high enough you should definitely wear sunscreen in the winter.

  5. Yang says:

    Great topic! It is very informative, thanks Kellen.
    Sunlight is extremely strong in summer but much weaker during winter days, I’m wondering is it necessary to use sunscreen during winter?

  6. awylde says:

    Really well written and informative piece. As someone who grew up in sunny WA I probably should have known all of this, but I didn’t. Better stock up on sunscreen this summer!

  7. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Hi Cherese, it’s a shot to cover the ‘commonly exposed’ parts of your body. So one shot for your face, neck and ears, arms and legs. Imagine the skin that’s exposed if you were wearing a t-shirt and shorts. I think if you’re having a day at the beach it’s even more.

  8. Cherese Sonkkila says:

    Super interesting! Even as a fellow red-head there were definitely some things in there that i didn’t know. Is it a shot of sunscreen to cover the whole body? Or a shot per limb?

  9. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Glad you liked the post Harriet, hope you stay sunburn free this summer!

  10. Kellen Lowrie says:

    Richard that sunscreen pill sounds just crazy enough to work. Thanks for the comment, I had no idea this could potentially be available. It would be pretty amazing if we could create a sunscreen by learning from coral. Some chemical sunscreens are really harmful to coral so if we could take a pill instead that would be pretty cool!

  11. Harriet Kulich says:

    Great article! As someone else who burns very easily, I’ve done some research myself but missed a lot of the points you’ve spoken about. I thought your sections about the different types of UV and SPFs were particularly interesting – nice explanations!

  12. Richard Proudlove says:

    An informative and well written article. Sounds crazy but they are trying to create a sunscreen pill