Aussies know sun care better than anyone else on the planet. This is because of Australia’s unusually harsh sun and high UV exposure, which, according to NASA, results mainly from its location in the Southern Hemisphere: “The elliptical orbit of the Earth places the Southern Hemisphere closer to the sun during its summer months than the Northern Hemisphere during its summer.” Unfortunately, this also results in the world’s highest rates of skin cancer. That is why the Australian government has established strict SPF standards.
“Australia takes sun protection measures very seriously, as they have the highest rate of melanoma cases,” says Miami dermatologist Dr. Deborah Longwill. “They have the strictest testing facilities and requirements for all sunscreens being sold there.” But does this mean Aussie sunscreen—some of which is sold in the U.S. now, like Blue Lizard and Bondi Sands—is better or more effective than American versions? Let’s investigate.
The Aussie Difference
“In Australia, SPF-containing products are divided into therapeutic sunscreens and cosmetic sunscreens,” says Aussie cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong, founder of Lab Muffin Science. “Therapeutic sunscreens include primary sunscreens higher than SPF 4 and moisturizers with SPF higher than 15. In other words, these are the serious sunscreens that you’d rely on to protect you from the sun, and they’re regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration—the TGA is similar to the FDA in the U.S., but the drug part only. Cosmetic sunscreens are everything else, including lip products and foundations with SPF higher than 4, moisturizers with SPF 15 or lower, and sunbathing skin-care products with SPF between 4 and 15. These are regulated like regular cosmetic products, and by two different organizations.”
Dakota Green, cofounder of Vacation by Poolside FM, a coming-soon sunscreen brand, says that the TGA and FDA are pretty similar. “While many of the differences in the organizations’ regulations are minor—they measure water resistance in hours versus minutes—the TGA tends to be on the leading edge of innovations in sun care,” he explains. “For example, they’ve approved the use of many more filters and newer filters that are even better at protecting against UVA, the type of UV protection that helps prevent skin cancer.”
Wong says broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB) is mandatory for Australian therapeutic sunscreen, and only certain SPF numbers are allowed: 4, 6, 8, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 and 50+. Whereas in the U.S., the brand is allowed to put the exact number the sunscreen tested at, such as SPF 46, 72, etc. Another difference, which may be considered a downside for the Australian bunch, is that brands only have to include the percentages of active ingredients on their SPF labels—not the other “inactive” ingredients in the formula. “This can be annoying if you’re sensitive to a particular ingredient in the base,” she adds.
All of this to say, there are key differences in the two countries’ standards, but the consensus seems to be that one is not necessarily better or more effective than the other. “I don’t think they are better than what we have here, but I believe that the Australian measures on being sun smart have had an important impact on lowering the rates of skin cancer, especially melanoma,” says New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD.
Why the U.S. Needs to Catch Up
“Australian schools have increased the amount of shaded areas for children to play in, they have changed the recess and play time to earlier or later in the day, and they have mandated the use of hats and sunscreen use when outdoors,” says Dr. Day. “In America, many schools not only don’t do this, and they require a doctor’s note for sunscreen application at school or camp because sunscreen ingredients are considered and regulated as drugs in the U.S. Organizations such as The American Skin Association, The Skin Cancer Foundation and The American Academy of Dermatology are working hard to get the message out, but it’s a challenge to work against the tanning industry and some influencers who scare people about the safety of sunscreen ingredients, and to help young people understand that damage from UV rays starts at a young age and can take years to show.”
Lach Hall, cofounder of Vacation by Poolside FM, is also an Aussie, and remembers having the rule of wearing sunscreen being drilled into him from a young age. “From the government side, they had enormous advertising campaigns running all summer— the most famous and long-lasting being the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign, which educated kids to slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat before heading outside.” Dr. Longwill recalls this campaign as well: “In Australia they are taking care of their citizens, requiring them to apply sunscreen at an early age. They are trying to keep the children aware that the accumulation of sun damage causes skin damage and skin cancer. Protecting children at an early age will prevent future damage and future skin cancer from developing. I am sure there are many other sun policies Australia has implemented that that I am unaware of, but we should be implementing in the U.S.”
Hall also remembers the “no hat, no play policy” he had at school, where you weren’t allowed outside unless you had a hat on. “You’d be sent back indoors or punished if you were spotted outside without one,” he says. “I also remember every classroom in my elementary school having big pumps of sunscreen at the door where the teacher would encourage and help kids apply sunscreen before heading out.” Could you imagine if we implemented such rules here in the States? And on the beach, Hall says “lifeguards would set the example with protective clothing and walk around with sunscreen to give to people. There was always free sunscreen at the lifeguard tower. I guess in general, through these efforts the culture around wearing sunscreen in Australia shifted in popular culture (e.g. on TV) and in conversations, to the point where if you don’t wear sunscreen, it’s considered somewhat taboo.”
One Aussie sunscreen brand making waves in the U.S. is Blue Lizard, which Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD loves. “I am a huge fan of many Australian sunscreens, especially Blue Lizard,” she says. “The bottles and caps change color from white or clear to blue if there is ultraviolet light. What I discovered from this line was that sitting under a canvas umbrella was not adequate. I’m also a big fan of using SPF clothing and hats.” Bondi Sands, known for its self-tanning products, also just released a new range of five sunscreens for face and body that the brand says “have passed Australia’s rigorous testing and safety regulations, ensuring that each one offers the highest level of sun protection possible.”