17 January 2000

The fun isn't necessarily in the sun

by Kate Melville

For many years scientists and medical professionals have been exhorting us to cover up and use sunscreen. In Australia they even have a special public safety jingle that plays incessantly during the summer which goes, 'Slip, Slop, Slap - slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat'.

However new research by Professor Brian Diffey from Newcastle General Hospital, published in the British Medical Journal suggests that the numerical indicators of protection on sunscreen packaging actually cause more confusion than clarity and should be abandoned in favour of generic terms like 'low', 'medium' and 'high' protection.

Professor Diffey's argument is that the numerical indicators are generally seen as indicators of how much longer skin covered with sunscreen takes to burn, thereby encouraging extended exposure.

Professor Diffey also argues that people who use high factor sunscreens get sunburnt because they do not apply enough sunscreen. He then argues that if sunscreens were applied properly, there would be no need for sun protection factors higher than 15 to prevent sunburn.

This is sure to ignite plenty of controversy in countries like Australia that have high rates of skin cancer. Indeed most Australian primary school children must take and wear sunscreen at school, wear sun hats while playing outside or play in special shaded areas.

While Professor Diffey's argument that labeling should be more easily understandable has merit, it is only one aspect in a broad approach community communication to sun protection.

The problem with all issues related to sun exposure is that it's much harder to judge how much sunscreen to put on and how rapidly it needs to be reapplied. This writer who is in theory well aware of the issues recently got very sunburned while competing in an open ocean swimming race where the action of the waves effectively scrubbed the sunscreen off his back. The only consolation was that the race was the renowned Lorne Pier to Pub swim, held in Australia each summer. The race actually starts at the local mooring with competitors the swimming 1.2 kilometers to the pub, where soothing ales await the 3,500 thirsty competitors!

Perhaps Professor Diffey's next study should be on the impact of alcohol and holidays on the correct application and use of sunscreens?