I use sunblock but I still get sunburnt, what am I doing wrong?


Sometimes slip, slop, slap, just simply isn’t enough.

I have pristine, pale skin and I have had it my entire life. It’s an inheritance from my parents that has often caused physical pain and suffering during the blisteringly hot summer months. 

Living under the beam of the harsh Australian sun, there have been many times my delicate skin has turned red with heat and blistered beyond rescue. But by no means is this a pain I choose to endure. I have been well versed in the importance of SPF and protecting my skin from the sun for the entirety of my upbringing.

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Keys, wallet, phone and sunscreen have been my leaving the house essentials for the past ten or so years. Yet, no matter my commitment to the cause, I’m always the one guaranteed to come back from the beach looking red and raw. 

This is all made worse by the fact my naturally bronzed friends don’t bother with SPF and still don’t burn under the sun. While I know my skin is prime prey for the intensity of the Australian UV index, there’s got to be a way around this agony. What the heck am I doing wrong?

Why can’t I ever seem to avoid the excruciating sting of sunburn each time January rolls around? And how can I convince my friends that just because they don’t visually burn, it doesn’t mean they’re invincible to the effects of the sun?

I spoke to Melbourne-based dermal therapist James Vivian to get a better understanding of appropriate suncare practices and to figure out how to finally put a stop to my summer suffering.

First of all, why is sun protection so important?

Sun protection is really important for two main reasons. The most important factor is from a safety perspective. Essentially, we can develop skin cancer directly from the sun. So, the number one reason to wear SPF is to protect our bodies against melanoma and the detrimental effects of this.

The second reason, and perhaps a more topical point, is the fact that nothing ages us faster cosmetically than the sun. So if you’re trying to preserve your skin, if you’re trying to look younger for longer, if you’re trying to reverse signs of sun damage, or to slow down the ageing process altogether, then the number one anti-ageing product is sun protection.

What type of sunscreen should I be using? Are there certain forms of SPF better suited to different skin types?

There are two main forms of sunscreen. The first is chemical, the second is physical. Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and filter UV radiation, whereas physical blocks like zinc, oxide and titanium dioxide reflect UV radiation. Both are very good forms of SPF. But when it comes to sunscreen, you have to look for the best protection for you and your skin type.

There really is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to sun protection. Trial and error is truly the best way for you to find the right sunscreen for you. I live by this phrase “the best sunscreen is the one you wear every day”. People often buy sunscreen and don’t use it because they don’t like the way it sits or feels on their skin. The best way to adopt sunscreen use is to find one that you love using each day. And trust me, there is one out there for everyone.

What about makeup?

Good mineral makeup will contain physical forms of SPF, so that people can get really good, effective protection from makeup when exposed to the sun, but only when it’s mineral-based. When it comes to non-mineral makeup, they’re formed because they want to project beautiful luminosity, they want to have fabulous colour options, etc. Whereas mineral makeup is more concerned with its effect on the skin and providing as much protection as it can.

What is the Sun Protection Factor? 20+, 30+, 50+ – how do I know what is right for me?

The Sun Protection Factor refers to the length of time that each specific sunscreen is actively protecting you from UV radiation. Within this factor is an increase in the amount of protection that each sunscreen provides during that period of time. So the higher the sun protection factor, the more protection you will get from the sun and for longer.

However, with the increased protection factor, quite often the ingredients in the sunscreen are at a higher concentration. This means that the cream itself is likely to be thicker, that it is less cosmetically pleasing, and that it can leave a white chalky residue on the skin. If this is uncomfortable for you, opting for a lower protection factor is still a good option, as long as you’re using it correctly and reapplying sufficiently.

How long before going into the sun should I apply SPF, and how long will one layer last?

With chemical sunscreens, applying roughly 15 to 30 minutes prior to going in the sun is really important to maximise the protection. Whereas with physical forms of SPF (the zinc forms), it is less important. You can put it on and you’ll be protected immediately.

How much SPF should I be using each time I apply and how often do I need to reapply throughout a day?

It is really important to use the correct dosage of sunscreen; about a quarter of a teaspoon for the face is great and [keep] reapplying throughout the day. Sunscreen is not made to last all day. If you’re exposed to the sun, reapplying sunscreen every two hours is good practice.

If you’re sitting inside all day, you don’t need to be so mindful of this, but that said, if you put on sunscreen at 7am in the morning and then step out for lunch at midday, that sunscreen is definitely not effective anymore. Swimming and perspiring will wash off your sunscreen, so reapplying after any activities of this nature is important too.

What is the difference between UVB and UVA and do I need to protect against both?

Ideally, you want to be using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against bothUVB radiation is the carcinogenic radiation that will burn your skin. It is stronger during summer and during the peak of the day. UVA radiation is stronger on the shortest, darkest, coldest day of the year. It is UVA radiation that pigments our skin and that breaks down our collagen and elastin. 

From an anti-ageing perspective, and from a skin health perspective, you need to protect your skin 365 days of the year. If you’re wanting to purely protect against skin cancer, prioritise SPF use during the middle, hottest part of the day and more so during the summer months. But for UVA radiation, all day, every day. The minute the sun pops up, we’re exposed to UVA radiation.

Where in my skincare routine does SPF sit? 

This is a tricky one; it depends on the type of sunscreen. SPF will generally sit underneath your makeup to absorb into the skin, unless you’re wearing mineral makeup (which contains all of your sun protection) or a physical form of SPF. Physical forms create a barrier between your skin and the sun and so mineral-blockers don’t need to be applied first.

I do want to preface that the SPF in your makeup is generally not enough unless it is a good quality mineral makeup. So it’s best to get in the habit of applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. Some other crucial things to consider are to ensure that you apply beyond that quarter of a teaspoon; make sure you’re treating your ears, neck and chest if those areas are exposed throughout the day.

To learn more about sun protection head here, and to check out James Vivian’s skincare services head here.

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