Commissioner's Blog: Sunscreen suggestions #safesummer
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With Acting Consumer Protection Commissioner David Hillyard
Consumers suffering allergic reactions to sunscreen or burns when wearing it have been reported in the media recently, so it seemed timely to provide some tips for buyers and users.
We’re not skin specialists or cancer experts at Consumer Protection, which means we’ve sourced information from WA’s Department of Health and The Australian College of Dermatologists. You could also do your own research by looking at product review websites, reading information from consumer advocacy group CHOICE and speaking with a pharmacist.
Sunscreen alone is not enough to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays, which can cause cancer and visibly age skin. No doubt you will be familiar with these combined messages:
- SLIP on protective clothing (including when you are in water)
- SLOP on sunscreen (a liberal amount of SPF 30+ or higher gently layered on all exposed skin 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied at least every two hours)
- SLAP on a hat (broad brimmed or one with fabric overing the back of the neck)
- SEEK shade (avoid sun exposure completely in the middle of the day)
- SLIDE on some sunglasses (preferably lens category 3 or 4)
We need to wear sunscreen when the ultraviolet (UV) Index is 3 or above and that information is on the Bureau of Meteorology website www.bom.gov.au or in the weather section of the newspaper. Choose sunscreen labelled broad spectrum, which means it protects against UVA and UVB rays. SPF only applies to UVB.
Sunscreen we buy should meet Australian standards – AS/NZS 2604:2012 on the label means tested and regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). An AUST L number means it is on the TGA’s list but due to use of pre-approved ingredients it may not have been individually assessed. Adverse reactions to sunscreen, or doubts about efficacy, can be reported to the TGA via their website www.tga.gov.au.
Read ingredients to see whether there’s anything you or your family are known to be allergic to. However, ingredient-labelling requirements for sunscreens are a bit different to cosmetics, so certain things contained in the product may not be listed. This makes it imperative to carry out a patch test – putting a blob on a small area of skin, such as your inner arm, for 24 hours – to ensure no reaction is suffered. To avoid blocked pore eruptions (pimples, folliculitis etc.) consider ‘oil free’ or ‘non-comedogenic’ sunscreen.
Price shouldn’t affect the level of protection you get. A cheap bottle of SPF30+ should do the same as an expensive one. Cost difference usually relates to whether it’s a lotion, cream, spray, roll-on or wipes and you’re paying for how it looks and feels on skin, convenient packaging and easy application. It’s important to read the instructions because failure to apply the product properly can result in burns.
Look for water resistant sunscreen to repel sweat and for when you go in a pool or the ocean but you’ll need to reapply after drying off. Lack of reapplication is the main reason for sunburn.
Check the expiry date because it has to be used by then. Expired sunscreen is not effective.
When you’re wearing sunscreens they either:
- reflect or block UV rays, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which can be visible on skin; or
- absorb radiation, usually involving a mixture of synthetic chemicals which act as a filter and generally cannot be seen when applied.
Absorbent sunscreens have been tested to ensure they’re safe to use on human skin but different people have different sensitivities and reactions ranging from rashes to blisters are not uncommon. Face, eyelids, lips or hairy forearms are common areas to be affected. Often added preservatives or fragrances can be to blame. Ironically chemicals which absorb the UV rays can increase photosensitivity in some users, making those people more likely to burn in the sun when wearing absorbent sunscreen.
If despite a reaction-free patch test you go on to suffer burning, stinging or redness when using a sunscreen product, don’t use it again and report the skin irritation to the manufacturer of the product and the TGA.
It is recommended you do not use chemical sunscreens on babies under six months of age. Clothing, hats and keeping out of middle-of-the-day sun are better options for infants.
While you’re trying to keep cool this summer, don’t forget the temperature of your sunscreen needs to be lower than 30 degrees. Store sunscreen in your esky, wrap it in a towel or put it in shade and don’t leave it in a hot car or full sunshine.
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