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SPF ratings in Australia: here’s what you need to know

January 1 | 5 minute read

Australian Sunscreen Spf Ratings Hero 16x9

WORDS by Cjay Aksoyoglu

Originally published on | January 5

We all know sunscreen is the best anti-ageing skincare you can possibly invest in.

But more importantly, it helps to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun’s UV rays.

Thankfully, sunscreens have had a bit of a makeover since the thick, goopy days of yore. Whether it's a serum consistency applied with a dropper or a zinc-based formula, there’s an SPF to suit every face (and body).

But do you know your primary sunscreens from your secondary? And what is that little plus symbol for, anyway? If you’ve ‘slip, slop, slapped’ for as long as you can remember, but still don’t really know the difference between an SPF30 and an SPF50, then you’re about to become an SPF expert: we’re explaining what Australian SPF ratings mean and how they differ from international sunscreens. Read on!

What’s the difference between overseas and Australian SPF ratings?

First things first – let’s talk all things TGA. More formally known by its slightly-less-sexy name, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, this all-important government body is responsible for regulating therapeutic goods such as prescription medicines, vaccines, vitamins and of course, sunscreens.

Any product that falls into this category must be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) before it can be supplied in Australia, and let’s just say, there is a really strict process in terms of what can and cannot be listed – and for good reason. We know how dangerous UV rays can be for our skin, so the TGA ensures that only the highest quality, verified SPF products can be sold in Australia.

So, if you purchase an SPF elsewhere in the world, it’s unlikely to be a sunscreen regulated in accordance with the TGA, as it won’t have gone through the required approval process. For instance, if you purchase a product from overseas that is labelled as an SPF30, and it’s not stocked at MECCA – or elsewhere in Australia – it’s likely because it doesn’t meet Australian regulatory standards.

Are all sunscreens considered ‘therapeutic goods’?

Short answer? No. Therapeutic sunscreens include the category known as primary sunscreens. The ‘primary’ signifies that their main purpose is to be used purely as a form of sun protection, with the exception of some moisturisers containing SPF. These are the products that you’ll see labelled specifically as sunscreens, rather than as cosmetics.

The other type of sunscreens are called secondary sunscreens, because their primary purpose is cosmetic, while sun protection ranks as their secondary purpose. This category includes products such as tinted moisturisers and foundations or primers that contain SPF. Think: products you’ll find on the makeup shelves, with added sun protection being the bonus gift with purchase. While it’s a great idea to use a makeup product with SPF, it should still be used on top of a primary SPF and not relied upon as a primary means of protection.

If you’re looking for protection against the sun’s UV rays, rely on something that’s fit for purpose – and that’s a primary SPF.

What do the ratings mean on an SPF product?

SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’ and we often see it used in conjunction with a number such as SPF30. This number represents how much time UV (that stands for ultraviolet, FYI) rays take to burn skin with the sunscreen on, compared to skin that’s had no sunscreen applied. It also takes into account both UVA (the kind associated with skin ageing) and UVB (associated with skin burning) rays, so you can rest assured that if a sunscreen is labelled as ‘broad spectrum’, it’s filtering both UVA and UVB rays.

How do they work out the rating? According to the TGA, if skin protected with sunscreen takes 300 seconds to burn (with sunscreen applied liberally), but only 10 seconds to burn without sunscreen, the SPF is 300/10, which is 30.

If you’re not the numbers-y type, the basic takeaway is this: the higher the SPF, the longer UV rays will take to burn your skin.

Regardless of which rating you opt for, be sure to apply your SPF liberally every two hours. It’s recommended to apply one teaspoon for the face, neck and ears (and one cupped adult hand – 30 to 40ml – for an adult body).

On that note, what does the + sign mean on an SPF?

Ah, the tricky little plus sign! An enigma that everyone always wonders about (but likely never remembers to research). Fun fact: the plus sign means that the SPF rating on a particular product is actually higher than the number listed. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF50+ must actually have an SPF of 60 or more.

My SPF product from overseas has a pa+ sign on it, what does this mean?

Similar to SPF, the PA+ system is a way to measure the efficacy of sunscreens. However, unlike SPF, it isn’t a universal ranking system. Essentially, the PA+ system measures only UVA protection, whereas broad-spectrum SPF measures both UVA and UVB protection.

So why does this matter? Well, it’s crucial to have sunscreen that covers both bases. That’s because both UVA and UVB rays impact the skin. UVA rays don’t tend to burn the skin, but they’re no less problematic. While you can’t feel them causing any damage, UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and cause tanning, but also signs of dark spots and uneven skin tone. Plus, they can penetrate glass, so even sitting inside near a window or in the car puts you at risk. Meanwhile, UVB rays are responsible for those painful red sunburns. All in all, it’s important that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB, rather than focusing on the PA+ symbol.

So, what are the best Australian sunscreens?

Where do we begin? Australia has one of the most stringent SPF regulatory systems in the world. As a result, you can rest assured that you’ll be well protected when you choose from one of many options.

If you’re after an everyday facial sunscreen sans white cast, then look no further than MECCA COSMETICA’s To Save Face SPF50+ Sunscreen – it’s broadspectrum very high protection sunscreen. Our number-one bestselling SPF with a legion of diehard fans, it has more than a thousand five-star reviews for a reason: it feels light, wears well under makeup and won’t clog your pores.

On the sensitive side? Naked Sundays’ Collagen Glow 100% Mineral Sunscreen is a broad spectrum very high protection sunscreen and may just be for you. This one is a physical sunscreen, which means it uses a zinc oxide-based mineral filter to protect against UV rays, rather than a chemical filter. It also contains collagen (to help plump the skin) and watermelon extract to keep skin hydrated and calm, all at once. Dermalogica’s Invisible Physical Defense SPF30 is also a great zinc-based option that doubles in protecting the skin against environmental aggressors in addition to the sun’s harsh rays.

Finally, if you’re looking for an SPF for body, MECCA COSMETICA’s To Save Body SPF50+ Hydrating Sunscreen not only feels soothing (it’s packed with aloe vera and vitamin E) but hydrating too, all while offering broad spectrum high protection sunscreen.

*ALWAYS READ THE LABEL AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE. Sunscreen is only one form of sun protection. Avoid prolonged sun exposure and reapply as directed.

Related topics and brand tags

SunscreenSkin careMECCA COSMETICANaked SundaysDermalogica

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