FACING FACTS: Joe O'Daly, 7, applies a thick smear of zinc cream which though unpleasant is the most effective block to damaging ultraviolet light. Photo: Colleen Petch
Parents usually try to keep their children's exposure to chemicals at an absolute minimum, but when it comes to sunscreen, the more chemicals the better, according to the University of Canberra's head of pharmacy, Dr Greg Kyle.
Conversely, when it comes to sunburn remedies, the old-fashioned methods of cold tea and vinegar are just as effective as over-the-counter remedies.
Dr Kyle said parents were often wary of using products on their children's skin which contained lengthy lists of chemical ingredients when in fact, sunscreens with complex chemical combinations were ''usually more effective than the so-called natural options.''
Sunscreens worked by absorbing ultraviolet light before it penetrated the skin.
''So a mix of ingredient means a mix of chemical absorbers and usually a more effective product,'' Dr Kyle said.
''I think people can be scared about a long list of chemicals on a label, but we need to remember the products are regulated and tested, and even the natural products still contain chemicals.''
He added: ''I would definitely go for chemical exposure through sunscreen than sun exposure which can have devastating long-term effects.''
While it would be an unpleasant, as well as impractical method of sun protection, Dr Kyle said the most effective topical application was zinc oxide, which provides a physical block to ultraviolet light in much the same way clothing does.
''Unfortunately, it's not likely people are going to coat their entire bodies in zinc before heading out in the sun.''
A slathering over sun-prone noses and cheeks was the next best option.
Like all health professionals, Dr Kyle said sunscreen could only do so much, and the safest option for sun exposure is to wear clothing or swim rashies, a hat, to stay in the shade and avoid sun exposure between 11am and 3pm.
Meanwhile, new labelling laws introduced last month will allow Australian sunscreens to display a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 50+ rather than the previous maximum rating of 30-plus.
The new standard, introduced to recognise the developments made in sunscreen technology over recent years, brings Australia in line with the likes of New Zealand and is being introduced to shop shelves already.
But Dr Kyle said a SPF 50 did not make a person impervious to burning.
While an SPF 30 sunscreen will block out 96.7 per cent of UV, the new SPF 50 blocks out 98 per cent of UV.
''So really, the incremental increase is not that great and we still need to be careful in the sun, even when using sunscreen.''
Once skin was burnt, the damage was done.
But pain management could be assisted by cold compresses of tea or vinegar.
''If you sustain a sunburn, the best thing is to take the heat out of the skin through a long, cold shower,'' he said.
''Then the old-fashioned remedies of cold tea or vinegar can go someway to easing the pain if you can tolerate the smell.''