If there’s one thing Australians don’t mess around with, it’s sun protection.
From a young age, we’re made acutely aware of the risks associated with too much time in the sun. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70 and approximately 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer each year.
As residents of the Southern Hemisphere, we get closer to the sun during our summer months than those in the Northern Hemisphere, which means we experience higher UV levels. Our geography, combined with the health risks, is why Australians apply approximately two million litres of sunscreen annually.
This is great news for our skin, health and overall well-being. But there are downsides. Most sunscreens are sold in single-use plastic packaging and may contain ingredients that can be harmful to humans and the environment.
Alternatives have emerged to counter these concerns. Many brands are now using low-impact packaging, like recycled aluminium, and formulating physical (mineral) sunscreens instead of chemical sunscreens. Unlike chemical sunscreens which absorb harmful UV rays before they can damage skin, physical sunscreens create a layer on the skin to deflect the sun’s rays.
Naturally, people want to know that the sunscreen they use is going to protect their skin from harmful UV rays. So, to find out exactly how physical sunscreens work and how they compare to chemical sunscreens, we sat down with Sun Juju founder Ella Liascos. Sun Juju is a non-toxic, Australian mineral sunscreen brand. Its products are sold in recycled aluminium tins and are made from entirely plant-based ingredients.
There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical (mineral). The basic difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen is that one is absorbed into the skin, and one sits on top of it.
“Physical sunscreen creates a physical barrier between UV rays and the skin, so it works instantly once applied,” Ella explains. “Chemical sunscreen requires application 15 minutes before going out into the sun, so it can absorb into the skin. The compounds cause a chemical reaction when exposed to the sun that transform UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin. Some common chemical ingredients like avobenzone aren't actually stable in sunlight unless paired with other chemicals.”
What to look for when choosing a physical sunscreen
In Australia, the Theraputic Goods Administeration (TGA) regulates sunscreen products to make sure they meet high standards for quality, safety and effectiveness. Only approved ingredients can be included in sunscreens. For any sunscreen product, you want to look for an AUSTL number. This number shows that the product has been listed and tested with the TGA.
The main active ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These have been generally recognised as safe and effective by the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and are approved by the TGA. “Since they're physical and designed to sit on top of the skin as a barrier to UV rays, they don't absorb at high rates in our bloodstream and threaten to interrupt our biology or health in any way,” Ella says. Like the ingredients in chemical sunscreens, the ingredients in physical sunscreens are organic chemical compounds too. They’re just not absorbed into the body like those in chemical formulations, which is why some people prefer physical products.
“It has a velvety, luxurious texture that rubs on easily without pulling the skin,” Ella says. “When it sinks in it feels more matte than greasy but it's not drying. The smell is a very faint nostalgic sunscreen smell. It's white, but only leaves a very faint cast that's not really visible, especially not after one hour. Once applied, you forget it's there – unlike a lot of greasy mineral alternatives.”
When choosing any type of sunscreen, our advice is to first read about how sunscreens are approved for supply in Australia (or wherever you live). If you are concerned about any ingredients that are currently approved, try out a physical/mineral sunscreen as the active ingredients don’t absorb into your skin. And remember that the advice has never been to stop wearing sunscreen!
Ella suggests choosing an SPF in plastic-free or recycled packaging to “keep it truly reef safe”. “Every plastic bottle you buy will outlive you by hundreds of years. The plastic in our waterways is bad for our bodies too, it ends up in the water we drink, our sea salt and seafood.”
Does physical sunscreen offer the same protection as chemical sunscreen?
“Sunscreen is considered a medicine in Australia and is therefore regulated under the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Because of this, we have the absolute strictest standards for sunscreen here — so strict that some big international skincare companies that try to import SPF into Australia have lots of trouble doing so because their sunscreens don't meet Australian standards,” Ella explains.
Of course, to ensure maximum protection, any sunscreen should be regularly applied, especially when swimming. Time in the sun should be avoided during the hottest times of the day and other protective garments like hats, shirts and sunglasses should be worn on top of sunscreen to provide extra protection. Ella also recommends choosing products with a minimum SPF30 rating. “The higher the better, honestly. A BB cream with SPF15 is pointless if you're looking to actually protect your skin day to day. No lower than SPF30.”
Sun Juju’s key organic ingredients and the skin types that benefit from physical formulations
“[Sun Juju’s formulation contains] organic Kakadu plum, nature's highest source of Vitamin C. It’s a great protector against free radicals rays,” Ella says. It also contains zinc which, before being discovered for sunscreen, was actually used for wound repair and inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea and acne.
Because of this, Sun Juju is great for sensitive skin types. “I've had lots of feedback from people with sensitive skin. World Surfing Champion Pauline Menczer from the film Girls Can't Surf has a skin condition called pemphigus vulgaris and reached out because she'd heard Sun Juju was great for sensitive skin. She tried it and wrote back saying it worked well, in particular because when she applies it, it doesn't pull at her skin like oily/sticky mineral formulas would. Since zinc is anti-inflammatory, anyone with inflammatory skin conditions … can also benefit.”