24 November 2009

Sunscreen products: FAQs

Does it matter what kind of sunscreen you use? Do sunscreens really protect? Brush up on the facts.


Does it matter what kind of sunscreen you use? Do sunscreens really protect? Brush up on the facts with these frequently asked questions.

Q: The media recently reported that sun creams don't help to protect you against skin cancer. Is this true?

A: Some doctors and researchers are beginning to think that sun creams could be harmful because they encourage people to stay out in the sun for longer. They think that the protection the creams give you against burning may not actually stop your risk of skin cancer increasing. These doctors and researchers would prefer that people didn't sunbathe at all. You certainly shouldn't go out in the sun without skin protection.

Most people don't apply enough sun cream and don't put it on often enough while out in the sun. Sun creams also rub off. Even if the manufacturers say the products are waterproof, they may come off when you are swimming or drying yourself. To get the best protection, you must re-apply creams at least every two hours. And more often if the cream is rubbed, washed or sweated off.

You must apply sun creams very thickly. Many people assume that a thin layer of cream is enough. But it isn't and you need to rub big dollops of cream in all over your body before you will get the protection that is stated on the bottle.

The only way to be absolutely sure of keeping your risk of skin cancer as low as possible is to keep out of the sun. If you are in the sun you should make sure that you never burn. Sun creams are only one way to do this. You should not believe that by applying a sunscreen you automatically protect your skin from damage.

Q: Does it matter what kind of sunscreen I use?

A: Sunscreens come in a variety of forms such as lotions, gels and sprays, so there are plenty of different options. There are also sunscreens made for specific purposes, such as the scalp, sensitive skin, and for use on babies. Regardless of the type of sunscreen you choose, be sure that you use one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and that it offers at least SPF 15. Look out for products that carry the Cancer Association of South Africa Seal of Recognition.

South Africa is fortunate to have two sunscreen testing laboratories responsible for testing and validating all sunscreens with the CSOR. Their testing methods and criteria are aligned to the most widely recognised international standards and protocols. Members of the public can use products bearing this emblem with confidence. An international working committee that includes South African representation is developing a universal (ISO) standard to rate all UV protection levels.

Q: What does a sunscreen's SPF rating mean?

A: Sunscreens are at present graded with a "Sun Protection Factor", a laboratory measure that assesses their ability to filter out harmful rays. The number suggests how long it will take a protected person's skin to burn compared with someone out in the sun without a sunscreen. The higher the number, the more protection you should get. For example, SPF 15 means you can spend 15 times as long in the sun than if you were unprotected before getting burned. If it takes your skin 10 minutes to burn, you could now stay in the sun for 15 x 10 minutes. However, don't push your sunscreen to the limit - seek shade much earlier!

Q: Do sunscreens need to be reapplied during the course of a day?

A: You should follow the manufacturer's directions regarding reapplication or you risk not getting the protection that you might think you are getting. Though recently developed sunscreens are more resistant to loss through sweating and getting wet than previous sunscreens were, you should still reapply frequently, especially during peak sun hours or after swimming or sweating.

Q: How do sunscreens work?

A: Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun's rays. Such products contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Sunscreens help prevent problems related to sun exposure, such as aging skin and precancerous growths.

Keep in mind that sunscreen is not meant to allow you to spend more time in the sun than you would otherwise. That's why it is important to complement sunscreen use with other sun protection options: cover up, wear a hat and sunglasses, and seek shade.

Q: Some cosmetic products claim to protect you from UV rays. Can they?

A: There are cosmetics and lip protectors that contain some of the same protective chemicals used by sunscreens on the market. However, not all of these products meet the standard of having at least SPF 15, and therefore do not offer sufficient protection by themselves.

Read more: Know your skin cm x cm

(Information supplied by the Cancer Association of South Africa,


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Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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