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Going swimming? Here's how to get the most out of your sunscreen

Wednesday 4 January 2017

A father sits at the beach with his back to the camera, while his daughter applies sunscreen to his back.
Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you hit the water and re-apply every hour

Honestly, sunscreen is one of those things that seems incredibly simple - you squeeze, you apply, you get protected from the harmful effects of UV rays. How exactly does that process go wrong?

It turns out: surprisingly easily, particularly when you're going swimming. Sunscreen is an incredibly useful tool for protecting yourself from sunburn and reduces skin cancer risk, but sunscreen isn't a suit of armour that you put on and forget about. Good sunscreen habits in everyday life need to be adjusted when you're hitting the water, especially when you're heading to the beach or pool for the first time since last summer.

If you're heading out for a swim this week, here are the five things you want to be doing in order to really get the most out of your sun protection.

Pick the right product

If you've never paid too much attention to what's on the label of your sunscreen, this summer is the time to start. Sunscreens are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia, and they've got a whole list of requirements that need to be met before a sunscreen is approved. If you're in a hurry, here's the short-list of things you absolutely want to see on the label:

  • Broad-spectrum - this means that the sunscreen filters and provides protection against both UVA and UVB radiation.  
  • SPF 30 or SPF 50 - SFP 30 filters 96.7% of ultra-violet radiation (UVR) and SPF50 filters 98%.

Go hard when applying

You don't want to be applying little dots of sunscreen to your skin - you want to cover every bit of your skin that's going to see sunlight and you want to be thorough about it. Basically, sunscreen really is one of those situations where you either want to go hard, or stay at home where the sun cannot find you.

Be generous when it comes to squeezing sunscreen out of the bottle. If you want to get technical, download the Cancer Council Australia's SunSmart app for for iOS and Android - it includes a sunscreen calculator that ensures you're applying enough. 

If you're without a phone, aim for approximately one teaspoon per arm or leg, and don't be afraid to really go at it. Basically, there's no particular downside to over-applying sunscreen, and there are plenty of downsides when you don't use enough.

Take 20 before you hit the water

You get the greatest mileage out of your sunscreen when it's applied on clean, dry skin about 20 minutes before you head outside. If you really can't wait to get to the water, once you arrive, apply your sunscreen when you're still at home and let it soak in while you're travelling.

There are two different types of sunscreen, and they protect you from UV rays. The first type creates a physical barrier which blocks and reflects UV light the same way a white wall reflects lights - and it includes things like zinc cream where the sunscreen is noticeable.

The second type of sunscreen provides a chemical barrier that absorbs and filters ultraviolet radiation, and it tends to be a lot less visible to the naked eye. For this second type of sunscreen to do its job effectively, it needs time for those compounds to get absorbed into the pores and creases of your skin.

Which is where our 20-minute wait comes in - it gives your skin the time it needs to absorb the sunscreen and really get proper protection. If you hit the water before those 20 minutes are up, some of the sunscreen is going to wash away before the absorption has taken place…and you're going to be less protected.

Re-apply every hour

Sunscreen is water-resistant, not waterproof, which means it doesn't last forever once you start swimming. It should be reapplied every two hours, if you're staying on dry land, because it'll take roughly that long before a combination of sweat and absorption through your skin means the first layer you put on is gone.

When you hit the water - even if you're wearing water-resistant sunscreen - you're going to wear off the sunscreen even faster, so plan to re-apply every hour and make sure you've got a reliable means of telling when it's time.

If you can't find a reliable way of figuring out when your hour is up and find yourself guesstimating, err on the side of caution and come in sooner rather than later.

Replace your bottle of sunscreen regularly

There's an expiration date on every bottle of sunscreen, and it does actually matter. It's easy to disregard it, since sunscreen isn't food, but the active ingredients in sunscreen that actually protect you from the sun do break down over time.

Even if you're paying attention to the use-by date, there are all sorts of things you can do that will make the sunscreen less effective. Leaving the bottle in a hot car, or out in the direct sunlight, reduces sunscreens effectiveness as the heat breaks down the ingredients.

If it's been the better part of a year since you last headed to the beach, or if you routinely leave your sunscreen in a hot car between swims, double-check its expiry date and contemplate replacing the bottle.

Make sure you've got a back-up plan for protecting your skin

Sunscreen is an incredibly useful tool for protecting your skin from the suns rays. In fact, increasing the daily use of sunscreen in Queensland would go a long way to reducing the incredibly high melanoma risk in the state by 75% and the rates of squamous cell carcinoma by 40%.

But good as sunscreen is, it's not up to the task of keeping your skin safe from UV rays all on its own. It's one of five recommended ways of staying sun safe for good reasons, but the other four are just as important.

It pays to have back-ups upon back-ups when it comes to protecting your skin, which means you need to slip, slap, seek, and slide in addition to slopping on sunscreen at regular intervals.

Want more sun safety advice?

Get some advice on performing regular skin checks and break down of common sun safety facts and myths.

Last updated: 4 January 2017