Breaking down sunscreens - the good, the bad and the must haves

Breaking down sunscreens - the good, the bad and the must haves

Living in such a beautiful sunny place like Australia means that we may get more sun than others. As good as it feels to be under the sun, there are lots of downsides that come with it. You would notice over the years that you’ve got sun damage on your skin in forms of pigmentation, loss of collagen or even precancerous or cancerous lesions. Therefore, protecting our skin with sunscreen is something that you wouldn’t need to think twice about. It is one of the simplest habits that we can build to prevent skin cancer and to support our skin in ageing gracefully. Not sure where to start? Here is the breakdown of all things you need to know about sunscreens.

How to read your sunscreen labels and what does it mean?


Sun Protection Factor. It indicates how much protection your skin will get against UV radiation IF you are applying the product the right way, as directed (scroll down to see what this means). SPF is measured based on lab testing where the impact of UV on skin with and without sunscreen would be compared.

For example, SPF30 on average would have 1/30th (3.3%) of UVB rays reaching the skin which amounts to 96.7% of UVB protection. The same concept would apply to higher SPF ratings such as SPF 50, you will get approximately 98% UVB protection with 1/50th (2%) UV reaching the skin.

Broad spectrum

The whole package, protection against both UVA and UVB.

UVA: Penetrates deeper into the skin and also through windows, most common; cause premature ageing of the skin (e.g. wrinkles)

UVB: More harmful; cause sunburns

*Both UVA and UVB contribute to skin cancer.

According to Australian standards, any sunscreen labelled as ‘broad spectrum’ needs to have minimum 1/3 UVA protection of its SPF claim.

So, SPF 30 would approximately give 90% UVA protection with 1/10th (10%) UVA rays reaching the skin, while SPF50+ would filter around 94% UVA radiation.


Australian Licence. This number translates as a tick of approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for the product to be retailed as a therapeutic sunscreen, meaning that it can be used as a sole primary product you can rely on for UV protection. As we know, Australia is strict when it comes to approving sunscreens. So, some companies would list their products as a secondary product with SPF, for instance in most cases: moisturiser with SPF. This does not mean that it’s less effective, but it is mainly a complex regulatory process that the company might decide not to go through.

Different types of sunscreens

Physical (Mineral/Inorganic) vs Chemical (Organic)

The big debate for all skin nerds. You can have sunscreens with just physical or just chemical filters, or a mix of both. The questions are: is one better than the other? What’s the difference and which one should I opt for? Here’s the nitty-gritty about both options. Disclaimer: anyone reading that doesn’t want to dive too deep and confuse themselves - KEEP SCROLLING UNTIL YOU SEE A STOP SIGN.

Physical sunscreen Chemical sunscreen
Ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Ingredients: everything else besides the two. Most commonly used are oxybenzone, avobenzone and homosalate.
Can feel heavier Most of the time it feels lighter
Sometimes might leave a whitecast (especially if it contains titanium dioxide)   Less whitecast
Might be less irritating Some chemical filters might cause irritation/allergic reaction on sensitive skin  
The zinc component might give added anti-inflammatory benefits for acne, rosacea, eczema skin Often more water resistant, some filters offer higher UVA protection
Preferable for heat-triggered conditions such as melasma (scroll down for details) Often associated with many fear-mongering statements due to misinterpretation of studies and used for marketing purposes that are misleading (e.g. coral reef damage - leads to “reef-safe” labels, hormone disruptors - leads to “hormone-safe” labels on sunscreens)  

Now, the most common myth around this would be “physical sunscreens reflect and scatter UV, while chemical sunscreens absorb UV like a sponge”. Rings a bell? Well, it’s not completely wrong, but it’s not 100% true either. Both types of filters absorb UV and convert it into heat, however physical sunscreen does reflect around 4-5% of UV (Cole et al., 2016).

Then relating back to heat-triggered conditions such as melasma, is it really that crucial to be on physical sunscreens?

Here at Clinica Lase, we believe that removing any possible factors of worsening the melasma is best. So, yes, physical sunscreen would be ideal. However, in saying that, if you cannot find a physical sunscreen that you like and would apply in the correct amount everyday, the benefit of using any of your preferred sunscreen would outweigh the risk of that 4-5% heat conversion. Ocosmedics Mineral Pro SPF 30+ is one of our favourite physical sunscreens that is light-weight, cosmetically elegant and it’s available in both tinted and non-tinted versions.

STOP HERE and continue reading. All in all, both chemical or physical sunscreens have their own benefits and drawbacks, but not major enough to stop anyone from using one over the other. A study by Lademann et al. (2005) actually suggested that sunscreens containing both chemical and physical filters have higher efficacy compared to those with just chemical or just physical filters. Therefore, it’s not a battle between chemical and physical sunscreens, but combining these two together works best on providing the most effective protection against UVA and UVB.

Cream, lotion, milk, gel, spray, powder or compact?

With all the sunscreen options in the market, honestly, it can be too overwhelming to know which one to choose. Simple answer would be to choose the one that you prefer and suit your lifestyle. Also, have a reapplying plan. You can either reapply with the sunscreen that you apply in the morning or use a different product.

Spray, powder and compact would be more suitable for reapplying instead of as a primary sunscreen that you apply in the morning. The only reason for this is that it’s hard to make sure you have an even layer of protection throughout the whole area. Tone Smart SPF 50 Priming Compact by Skinbetter Science is absolutely amazing for reapplying throughout the day; it’s easy to carry around and looks great over your makeup.

Another FAQ around this would be, is my makeup with SPF enough?

Unfortunately, it’s not. To be able to get the amount of protection listed on the product, you need to apply a lot. By a lot, I mean A LOT. You’ll be super cakey. So, having a separate sunscreen would be a much better option.

Which sunscreens are the must haves?

  1. Aim for minimum SPF 30.
  2. Make sure it protects you against both UVA and UVB: broad spectrum.
  3. Find ones that will suit skin type, your lifestyle and in a texture that you like.
  4. If your skin is quite sensitive, you can do a patch test first.

Not sure which one would suit you best? Talk to one of our dermal clinician for personalised advice. Prefer to browse over our sunscreen collection? Click here.

How should I apply my sunscreen?

When it comes to sunscreens, it’s the opposite of a little goes a long way. Make sure to apply it generously every day. Whether you are indoors or outdoors, rain, hail or shine, always apply your sunscreen. A general rule of thumb would be a teaspoon to cover your face and neck. For your body, it should be enough to fill a shot glass which is about an ounce. Secondly, don’t forget to reapply every 2 hours.

Last but not least, remember that sunscreen is not the only way to protect your skin against UV. Protect yourself in five ways:

1. Slip on clothing that covers as much skin as possible.

2. Slop on SPF30 (or higher) broadspectrum, water-resistant sunscreen 20 minutes before you go outdoors and reapply every two hours.

3. Slap on a broad-brimmed hat that shades your face, head, neck and ears.

4. Seek shade.

5. Slide on sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard for UV protection.


Cole, C., Shyr, T., & Ou-Yang, H. (2016). Metal oxide sunscreens protect skin by absorption, not by reflection or scattering. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 32, 5-10.

Lademann, J., Schanzer, S., Jacobi, U., Schaefer, H., Pflücker, F., Driller, H., Beck, J., Meinke, M., Roggan, A., & Sterry, W. (2005). Synergy effects between organic and inorganic UV filters in sunscreens. Journal of biomedical optics, 10(1), 14008.