We all know we should slather on sunscreen before heading out into our country’s harsh rays. None of us likes to be sunburnt, plus UV rays can promote skin damage leading to premature ageing and skin cancers. But are you using the right type? Should you head straight for a high SPF or choose something with added zinc, or the likes of ecamsule, avobenzone or oxybenzone? Confused? We investigate…

Sunscreens aren’t what they used to be. Once mostly SPF15+ and smelling of coconut oil, today we see SPF30+ and SPF50+ lotions, sticks and sprays that contain all kinds of chemical and mineral ingredients and compounds which claim to prevent harmful UV rays from penetrating and damaging our skin. So, let’s take a look at them.


 What’s in a screen cream? 

Most sunscreens on the market contain chemical or mineral filters. These products typically include a combination of two to six active ingredients. It’s important to note that more sensitive skin types can react to some of sunscreen’s chemical ingredients. The most common reactions are dermatitis, dry skin, acne, itching, redness and skin discomfort. It’s wise to test your sunscreen by applying a small amount on a patch of your inner arm before using all over.

Also, all sunscreen agents do degrade after a period of time exposed to sunlight, so you will need to re-apply your sunscreen as often as specified on the product packaging in order to maintain its full protection.

Below is a list of common sunscreen ingredients. For a full list of permitted ingredients, take a look at the Australian regulatory guidelines for sunscreens.


This is a primary agent in sunscreens and the most common used around the globe. As a topical, broad-range UV protector it blocks UVA I, UVA II, and UVB wavelengths, thereby limiting the impact of harmful rays on skin. Antioxidants (such as vitamin E and ubiquinone) have been shown to enhance avobenzone’s photostability and, therefore, may be included alongside it in a sunscreen.


Also known as terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid and Mexoryl SX, this organic compound has been used since 1991 and is able to absorb UVA rays and some UVB rays. To improve its UV coverage and photostability, ecamsule has also been combined with avobenzone and octocrylene and marketed as Anthelios SX. Some tests show this combo to be an effective screen for as long as five hours.


Most often used in sunscreens that are SPF30+ and above, this active ingredient primarily provides UVB protection. Its UVA-blocking ability is very narrow and so it is never used alone in sunscreens.


This ingredient is the oldest and most common sunscreen active used to protect skin, mostly against UVB rays. It’s quite weak against UVA rays and so is used alongside other UV blockers in sunscreens. There are no studies that demonstrate octinoxate, as used in SPF products, is harmful.


Also known as octyl salicylate, this is an oil soluble chemical agent that is used to supplement the UVB protection in sunscreens – it doesn’t protect against UVA rays. It appears to have a pretty good safety profile.


This globally-approved sunscreen agent protects skin from the UVB range of sunlight. Though fairly weak on its own, its strength lies in the fact it can be used to stabilise other ingredients, such as avobenzone, to enhance UVA protection. It is also thought to have skin moisturising effects due to its emollient properties – it has a thick and oily texture.


Similar to avobenzone, this agent is also found in the majority of sunscreens. It’s job is to absorb UV radiation before it has the opportunity to damage your skin. Unfortunately, there are a few doubts about its safety, although it is approved for use in Australia by our Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Results of extensive environmental research published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology showed that oxybenzone is a major cause of widespread coral bleaching in the ocean. In fact, as little as a teaspoon of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen can cause bleaching. Also, some studies have indicated that oxybenzone stays in the body and may lead to hormone disruption.

Titanium dioxide

This mineral ingredient is a great broad-spectrum SPF ingredient (protecting against both UVA and UVB radiation) and is widely used in all manner of sun-protection products. Considered to have zero risk of skin sensitivity, it’s ideal for sensitive, redness-prone skin, and for use around the eyes, as it is very unlikely to cause stinging.

Zinc oxide

People have been using zinc cream to protect their skin from the sun since a zinc stick was invented by an Aussie in the early 1940s. Nowadays zinc is used in all kinds of sunscreens. An inert earth mineral, zinc oxide is a thickening, lubricating and sunscreen active ingredient that provides excellent UVA and UVB protection. Like titanium dioxide, it great for use on more sensitive skin types. This may be because it sits on top of the skin, scattering, reflecting and absorbing the UV rays, and starts protecting as soon as it’s applied. You might notice the blokes in the Aussie cricket team love their zinc cream!

 What does SPF mean, anyway? 

UVB is the major cause of sunburn and increased skin cancer risk, while UVA contributes to ageing of the skin, as well as the risk of skin cancer.

In November 2012, the TGA announced a new standard for sunscreens sold here in Australia, increasing the maximum sun protection factor from SPF30+ to SPF50+. The new standard requires the same level of Ultra Violet B (UVB) protection, with improved Ultra Violet A (UVA) protection for new formulas.

It’s important to note that SPF50+ offers only marginally better protection from UVB radiation than SPF30+ (98 per cent of UVB radiation compared to 96.7 per cent).

All SPFs need to be applied just as liberally, and re-applied every two hours (or after swimming, exercising and towel drying). It’s also important to use them in combination with other sun protection measures such as hats, clothing, sunglasses and shade.

Tell us, what is your go-to sunscreen and why? Let us know in the comments below.

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