As I write this today in Brisbane, Australia the mercury has hit 41C. Not actually that much of an achievement for some parts of this country, but what was more surprising to me was the UV index hit 13. 13 is extreme. 13 is almost beyond extreme. It’s very close to the highest level of UV index you can get. Thankfully I’m inside in an air-conditioned building, but even braving to venture to the reception you can feel the heat starting to permeate and the moment those automatic doors open, it feels like an apocalyptic event is about to unfold.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly, but damn it’s hot. The heat, of course, is dangerous. We need to be very careful in these temperatures, especially for our young ones and our pets. I’ve already seen my social media brewing up a storm about owners taking their dogs for walks. Quite rightly people are up in arms about this. The asphalt is virtually melting and people expect their dogs to cope with bare feet? No, they will burn and they will burn them badly.

What’s almost as dangerous as the heat though, if not more so because of the unseen danger, is the sun exposure and UV damage. I’m a GP and Skin Cancer Doctor. I see a lot of skin cancer. Brisbane is the melanoma capital of the world. QLD has some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. So, of course, skin cancer is always on my mind.

The WHO does not actually recommend talking about UV levels in terms of ‘burn time’ because they say it causes unrealistic expectations that if people don’t hit those burn times then they will be protected from sun damage. They are correct, you won’t be. Any sun exposure can cause sun damage. However, I often find with my patients that it is helpful to talk about it, albeit briefly, just to illustrate how quickly your skin can be damaged.

So what does a UV level of 13 mean for burn time? Well, a UV index of 11 can be less than 10 minutes of ‘burn time’ or ‘time to burn’. That means that your skin is getting damaged after only 10 minutes of being in the sun. imagine what a UV index of 13? Well, it’s probably less than 5 minutes. That’s right, 5 minutes and your skin is getting damaged. The time it takes to put your bins out, or the time it takes to get out of your car and into work, your skin may be getting irreparably damaged.

‘But doctor, it’s ok I run early in the morning. I don’t go out in midday sun, so I don’t get burned’. No, actually it’s not ok. If you check the Bureau of Meteorology website for your area, you will see the recommended times to use sunscreen. Today this is 7.30am – 3.40pm. I’ve seen it as much as 6.30am-5.30pm. So if you are out at all during those times you need to be protecting yourself (and honestly even outside those times).

So what can you do to protect yourself from the sun? Do I need to avoid the sun completely?

No you don’t need to avoid it, just be sensible. Slip, slop, slap! Cover up your skin. Wear a good hat. Wear sunscreen.

Wear a good sunscreen.

Wait, what? You mean not all sunscreens are ok?

Correct, some are better than others. But how do you know which ones are good? Well in Australia sunscreens are fairly regulated, as they are in most of the world. However, you can still get ones which don’t give you the protection you think you are getting. I see a lot of patients who think they get good protection, sorry ladies but mostly it’s you guys thinking you are safe with your SPF makeup. Well, I hate to say it but you may not be getting good UV protection, despite the SPF factor being high.

Ok, so how do I know which ones to get?

There’s no prescriptive list, however, DermnetNZ has a good article on sunscreen ingredients that you should be looking for. Most in Australia have octocrylene in, and as you can see in the article that gives reasonable protection from UVA-I UVA-II and UVB. If you see Zinc in there, well that’s very good protection too, and titanium dioxide is even better.

Patients often ask me for my recommendation. My response is “The best sunscreen is the one you will actually use”. What does this mean? Well, a lot of sunscreens just aren’t that nice to use, unfortunately. They can be very greasy, or sting, or really hurt your eyes if it gets in them. Typically the more expensive it is, the nicer it feels, but it may not give you better protection.

Water-resistant sunscreens are attractive as well, promising to give great protection for a long time when you are jumping in and out of the water. However, they often don’t work like this and may wash off fairly quickly despite the claims. Be careful with these, as they can give a false sense of security.

OK enough of this, you convinced me, just give me some brands to buy.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and there’s plenty of ones available on the market, but your budget will play a large role. Below are some brands that all have good protection for varying prices.

  • <$20/L – I would recommend our supermarket own brands. Coles, Woollies and Aldi all have good protection and are cheap ($5-6 / litre). They are however often are very greasy and sting like a bugger if they get in your eyes though.
  • $30-50/L – I would suggest Cancer Council and Sunsense. Both giving very good protection across the border, and the Cancer Council sensitive having zinc in is great, although Sunsense goes one-up and includes Titanium dioxide in their sport and ultra products. RRP usually around $50 a litre but often on sale works out around $35 a litre. Much less greasy and nicer on your skin and easier to apply, but almost 10x the price of the supermarket brands
  • $100/L – ok we’re in the high-end territory now. In this range, I like La Roche-Posey. It gives all-round protection and is honestly amazing on your skin. Does not sting in your eyes at all so great for little ones and the face, but my gosh it’s expensive. We are talking 20x the cheap stuff.
    Personally, at home, we use Coles own brand. It’s cheap and gets the job done.

So please remember, skin cancer does not just affect the ‘old’. It affects all ages. I’ve removed Invasive Melanomas off 20-year-olds. Not everybody has a personal history or family history either, and it can come out of the blue, so please remain vigilant and go for those skin checks. Most of my patients I recommend annual skin checks for due to the risk being so high in Brisbane, but please speak to your local GP, skin cancer doctor or dermatologist to get those checks.

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