It’s confusing isn’t it – so many sun creams, so many labels, so much conflicting advice. That’s why we’re here to help. We’ve spoken to the experts, looked at the research, and filtered out (excuse the pun) the myths, to present you everything you need to know about summer skin care.
Skin damage doesn’t just ruin your holiday, it can present a real health risk. So enjoy the sun safely, and soak up all its benefits, with our need-to-know guide to staying safe in the sun.
First things first. Skin cancers are on the rise. And they’re rising among young and old alike. But, of all cancers, it’s one of the most preventable. And the prevention: it lies inside a tube of sun protection cream.
What does sunlight do to skin?
Sunlight – the full spectrum of light that we see, and UV rays that we don’t – damages our skin’s chemical make up. Even though we can’t see them, both UVA and UVB play an important role in conditions such as premature skin aging, eye damage (including cataracts), and skin cancers. They also suppress our immune system, reducing our ability to fight off illness. In short, we want to avoid these as much as we can.
By damaging the skin’s cellular DNA, UV radiation produces genetic mutations that have been proven to have a link to skin cancer – and many experts believe that, especially for fair-skinned people, UV radiation also plays a key role in melanoma, the deadliest form of the cancer. So wearing sunscreen isn’t just about preventing the discomfort of sunburn, it could well save your life.
UVA and UVB – What’s the difference?
UVB rays (to remember this think of the B) cause burning. These are the chief culprits behind all those painful pink and peeling shoulders! While this damage tends to be to the skin’s outer, epidermal layers, it’s known to have a contributory role in the formation of skin cancer, and photoaging. Its intensity varies by time of day – in midsummer in Europe, that’s between 11am and 4pm. UVB does not significantly penetrate glass though.
UVA rays, (to remember, think of the A) cause aging. They’re prevalent even on bright cloudy days, penetrate far deeper into the skin, causing premature ageing and are also linked to melanoma. And they can penetrate through glass – making them far more damaging over time (think about all those drives to work).
How to choose the right sunscreen
A sunscreen’s SPF rating relates to protection from UVB. The number relates to how effective the formulation is in preventing the sun’s UVB from damaging the skin. So, if you have an SPF of 15, it should protect you from turning red (a sign that the skin is damaged, and under stress) for 15 times as long as if you’d had no protection. So if you turn red after 20 minutes (about average for fair skinned people, longer for darker skins) SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically protects you for about five hours.
But, the higher the number, the better the UVA protection – that’s the protection against the unseen, deeper damage. Typically, UVA protection is about a third of that of the UVB. So, if you’ve an SPF 15, you’ll only be getting a UVA protection of 5. Not great, in other words.
We’d always recommend using SPF 30 or above. An SPF 30 sunscreen blocks nearly 97 percent of UVA rays. If in doubt, look for the star rating (or, in some cases, the PA +++ system, as there is no universal standard to measure UVA protection).
Sunscreens offering protection against both are known as ‘broad spectrum’.
Is sunscreen all I need?
No. Even if you’re slathered in factor 50, you shouldn’t treat this as free pass to sizzle in the sun all day. Always take a five minute break every hour, to allow your skin to recover and reset. Wear sun-protective clothing (loose weave, cotton fabrics allow up to half of the sun’s damaging rays through to your skin). Wear a wide brimmed hat. And drink plenty of water, to keep your skin plump and hydrated.
What about once a day sunscreen?
The jury’s out. While many offer excellent protection, they’re generally only completely effective for six hours – less if you’re sweating, in-and-out of the pool, towel drying or (and this is the most common downfall) you simply haven’t applied enough, or applied evenly. So we’d still recommend topping up every few hours.
What about swimming?
Water and sunscreen don’t mix – even ‘water resistant’ formulas should be reapplied after a dip, just to be safe. Water tends to focus and strengthen the sunlight and this, coupled with the cooling effect of splashing around in the pool or the sea, tends to make people think they’re safer than they are.
How much is enough?
A teaspoon for the face. A shot glass for the body! And, if you’ve not got a shot glass to hand, that’s about one teaspoon for each arm, two for the torso, and two for each leg. And double layer, to avoid any missed spots. If you’re using a spray, do so out of the wind, to ensure the active ingredients reach your skin. And, chaps, don’t forget that bald patch.
What about chemical vs mineral?
That’s up to you. Chemical uses ingredients that create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. Clever stuff. They’re thinner, spread easily, and don’t leave a white cast. Always apply at least 20 minutes before you head into the sun – to allow the cream to really sink in. Any less time and its effectiveness drops significantly. And, for some, the chemicals can cause irritation. Look for ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone.
Mineral creams use microscopic particles as a physical barrier against the rays. The higher the SPF, the more ‘waxy’ they can look on the skin, but they’re effective as soon as they’re applied. Many believe these are better for children – and there’s certainly less irritation with them. Look for ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Are more expensive sunscreens better?
In a word, no. Sunscreens from the likes of Aldi, Wilko and Boots have all been tested alongside more expensive brands such as Darphin, Ultrasun and Lancaster – and they’ve all been found to be just as protective. So buy what you can afford, and what feels good on your skin – but whatever you do, don’t skip this most important step of you summer holiday.
For more information check out the NHS website here.