Summer seems to have arrived early this year in that we’re experiencing higher temperatures than usual for December. And it seems the weather experts are predicting temperatures will be above average across all of New Zealand for the next two months.
For many of us, a sunny, warm summer is exciting. Getting outside and enjoying summer is part of being a kiwi. I’m all for that as long as we also remember the need to be SunSmart to minimise our risk of developing skin cancer. New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and skin cancer is the most common cancer in New Zealand. UV radiation from the sun is the most common cause of skin cancers and more than 90% of skin cancers in New Zealand are caused by excess sun exposure.
In New Zealand, the prevention of skin cancer and the promotion of sun safety is led by the Health Promotion Agency. They work in partnership with the Cancer Society of New Zealand, Melanoma NZ and the Melanoma Network of New Zealand Incorporated.
Collectively these groups work to encourage SunSmart behaviours in our community. These are to:
- Slip on a shirt/top with long sleeves and a collar,
- Slip into the shade,
- Slop on sunscreen that is at least SPF 30, broad spectrum and water resistant, apply 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours,
- Slap on a wide brimmed hat, and
- Wrap on close fitting sunglasses.
Slopping on sunscreen is a vital component of being SunSmart. And so I was a little concerned to read a recent Consumer report into sunscreens which identified issues with some products.
Consumer tested 19 sunscreens against 2 aspects of the Australian and New Zealand standard for sunscreens. Two ‘natural’ products provided only low sun protection. Another product had to be removed from the market because it failed to provide the high protection it claimed.
It’s important to note that meeting the sunscreen standard is not compulsory in New Zealand where sunscreens are classified as cosmetics. (It is mandatory in Australia.) In New Zealand, products that meet other international standards, such as those in the US or EU, are also allowed to be sold as well as sunscreens that don’t meet any standard.
Essentially Consumer’s findings mean that not all sunscreens are equal with respect to the claims they make about the protection they provide. Consumer commented, “In a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, how do you know you can trust a sunscreen delivers on its claims?” A starting point might be to use sunscreens that do meet the Australian and New Zealand standard. Typically this will be stated on the product. This way you’ll know you’re getting a sunscreen that provides some protection.
A closer look at the standards revealed some interesting facts for me too. I still hear many people refer to sunscreen as sunblock. Sunblock is considered a misleading term and it’s use is not permitted by the standard because it may be interpreted to mean that 100% of the sunburning radiation is blocked – when in reality it isn’t.
Describing sunscreens as waterproof is also deemed misleading and not permitted. The Standard acknowledges that sunscreens will wash off when ‘immersed in water’ i.e. when you swim.
Summing up, choosing which sunscreen to buy for you and your family should be done carefully. I suggest looking for one that does meet the Australian and New Zealand standard and that has an SPF of at least 30, plus water resistance and broad-spectrum protection.
How you use sunscreen is equally important. As Consumer advises:
- Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun.
- Apply plenty – about one teaspoonful (5ml) for each arm, each leg, your back, your front and your face (which includes your neck and ears). That adds up to about 35ml for a full-body application.
- Ignore “once-a-day” claims. Sunscreen should be reapplied often – every two hours you’re in the sun and especially after swimming.
- Mopping up sweat or towelling dry reduces protection: apply another coat of sunscreen immediately.
And remember – a sunscreen is only one part of your defence against UV radiation.
When the sun’s rays are most intense (generally between 10am and 4pm, September to April*), limit your time in the sun and be sure to Slip, Slop, Slap and Wrap.
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.