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Moving To Australia Made Me Realise I’d Been Doing SPF All Wrong

Photo: Courtesy of Darcy Brown.
Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun.
After spending the past eight months in Australia, it's safe to say I have fallen for the Aussie way of life. It's no surprise considering the breathtaking natural wonders, outdoor-centric culture, and refreshingly laidback attitude. However, there is one area where Australia's "no worries" mindset doesn't apply: sun protection.
Owing to their extreme climate and the high skin cancer rates (more than two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime), Australians have adopted an innately sun-savvy mindset that distances them from the enduring notion that a tan equates to beauty. Don't get me wrong — having grown up in Essex, it was almost impossible for me not to favor a bronzed glow, but what I've learned since living here has put my previous efforts to protect my skin to shame.
The importance of sun protection became apparent from the moment I arrived. In Australia, a suntan — or, if we face the facts, sun damage — is not perceived to be trendy or indicative of good health. I was surprised to discover that tanning beds are illegal, and sunscreen products are heavily regulated. Just like hand sanitiser, bottles of SPF 50 are accessible at the counters of bars and restaurants. It has been a much-needed reality check and I've changed my tanning ways for good. Here's everything I want you to know about staying safe in the sun, Aussie style.

A tan is sun damage, plain and simple.

Let's set the record straight: a sun-induced tan should never be mistaken for a healthy glow. I'm sorry to burst that bubble. Brisbane-based dermatologist Dr. Davin Lim describes the tanning process as an adaptive behaviour to high levels of UV light. "It's your skin's way of telling you that it is getting too much radiation," says Dr. Lim. Melanocytes, specialised cells in the epidermis (the top layer of your skin), produce melanin pigment as a protective mechanism, and this darkens the skin in a plea to safeguard it from further damage.
If you ignore the initial warning signs, then issues are likely to show up on your skin later. ''Sun damage can present as deep wrinkles caused by collagen breakdown from UV exposure, [hyperpigmentation], enlarged pores, broken capillaries, and persistent rough, dry areas of skin,'' says Dr. Lim. But the harmful effects of UV exposure aren't solely aesthetic. Dr. Lim comes across lots of skin cancer cases, as well as precancerous lesions, which are skin changes or growths that are at risk of becoming cancerous over time.
Skin cancer accounts for the largest number of cancers diagnosed in Australia each year, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. While Australians appreciate the sun-kissed look, they also recognise the risks of excessive sun exposure. That's why fake tan products, like those from Coco & Eve and Bondi Sands, are a year-round beauty staple here instead — they can provide a bronzed glow without the harmful effects of UV radiation.

Australian sunscreens are among the best.

Dr. Lim says that Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma skin cancer (a type of cancer that can spread to other areas of the body) and non-melanoma skin cancer (a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin). This alarming statistic has seen the country implement the strictest regulations on sunscreen products.
Under the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (ATGA), all sunscreen products must undergo rigorous testing and compliance measures to ensure that they meet the highest efficacy and safety standards. Listing sunscreen as a 'therapeutic good', Australia literally places it in the same category as prescription medicine, vaccines, and medical devices. With that in mind, you can be rest assured that any Australian-founded sunscreen brand is of a high calibre.

No, the SPF in your makeup isn't enough sun protection.

I cringe when I recall the not-so-distant days when I relied solely on my tinted moisturiser with SPF 30 to shield my face from the sun. Can you blame me? Makeup's sun protection benefits are often over emphasized in product descriptions. However, makeup with SPF is classified as secondary sunscreen by the ATGA, as its primary purpose is cosmetic rather than protective.
"SPF in makeup does not offer anywhere near the protection of regular sunscreen," says Dr. Lim. That's because we tend not to apply enough of it. Dr. Lim suggests using about three-quarters of a teaspoon or two finger-lengths of sunscreen for the face and neck. However, it's unlikely any of us are applying this much makeup. I learned that you’d be lucky to get an SPF of 4 to 8 from a typical makeup application, while dermatologists recommend an SPF of at least 30.
Unless you're going to slather on half a bottle of tinted moisturizer each time, it pays to get serious about including a targeted sunscreen in your routine. So while layering makeup containing SPF over a dedicated sunscreen lotion is a great way to boost your protection against damaging UVA rays (responsible for premature ageing and skin cancer) and UVB rays (associated with sunburn), it is not enough on its own.
Photo: Courtesy of Darcy Brown.

Try building a sunscreen wardrobe.

Inspired by my Australian acquaintances, I've curated a sunscreen wardrobe with products and formulas that work with my skin's needs throughout the day. This makes it easy for me to practice a consistent level of sun care. It starts in the morning: Instead of waiting until I'm outside to apply sunscreen, I take a moment in front of the bathroom mirror (always at least 15 minutes before leaving the house) using a zinc-based facial sunscreen with SPF 50.

Australians favour SPF 50 over anything else.

SPF 30 blocks approximately 97% of UVB rays, while SPF 50 filters out approximately 98% of UVB rays. "This is the burning wavelength," adds Dr. Lim. "Remember the letter 'b' for 'burn'." He adds that, ideally, SPF 50 will allow you to stay in the sun 50 times longer than you would be able to without protection before getting sunburned, assuming you have applied the recommended 3 to 4 mL of sunscreen for the face and neck. That said, plenty of us do not apply enough sunscreen. "Most people apply only 20 to 50% of the recommended amount," confirms Dr. Lim, which is why it's important to bear in mind the simple two-finger application rule and to top up your sunscreen every two hours, especially if you are sweating or swimming.
It's also important to wear sunscreen all year round. "Although UVB is stronger in summer, UVA is constant and is responsible for damage to the deeper parts of the skin," says Dr. Lim. I don't take my chances: SPF 50 is now a non-negotiable in my skincare routine, just like it is for my Australian friends.

Holistic sun protection is a thing.

Remember the Green Cross Code we were taught at school? The "Stop, Look, Listen" jingle became institutionalised to ensure we learned how to cross the road safely. More recently, there was "Catch it, bin it, kill it" to stop the spread of COVID-19 — you get the idea. Similarly, in Australia, the "Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide" slogan is ingrained from a young age as the core message of the Australian Cancer Council's SunSmart program. It means the following: slip (to wear sun protective clothing); slop (to apply and reapply sunscreen); seek (to seek shade whenever possible); and slide (slide on sunglasses to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays).
The sun safety slogan forms a holistic approach to sun protection. "Slopping" on sunscreen is not a chore; rather, it is a universally celebrated practice against the sun's harmful rays. If you head to Bondi Beach, you'll frequently see surfers proudly sporting a visible white cast of sunscreen on their noses. The same goes for "sliding" on sunglasses. Wearing shades with proper UV protection goes far beyond fashion for me now — it plays a crucial role in maintaining my eye health and protecting the delicate skin around my eyes. The World Health Organisation says that wraparound sunglasses provide 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB protection. Also look for glasses that boast UV400 protection to defend the eyes and surrounding skin. Sunglasses with polarised lenses feature a special coating that reduces light glare and can safeguard eyes against UV rays, too.

Consider regular skin checks.

Lastly, aside from wearing sunscreen and investing in sun-protective accessories, regular skin checks are essential. Dr. Lim suggests performing a self-examination three times a year with a mirror. Simply look for indications of a new mole or a changing mole, which appears different to the rest. ''It is super easy and convenient to [use your phone camera] to take a reference photograph and to look for any changes,'' concludes Dr. Lim. If you are concerned about a mole, it pays to book an appointment with your doctor or a consultant dermatologist for further examination.
Note: The information in this article is general in nature. Please always consult your GP or health professional for advice that is tailored to your health concerns.
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