Suncream – the naked truth!

I know it isn’t really the weather to talk about suncream without wanting to cry… British summer for you. But be encouraged, the rest of Europe had a pretty rubbish summer too. So for a change it wasn’t just happening here!

Someone told me the other day that reapplying suncream is useless and we shouldn’t bother. Well that was new to me, so I thought I’d have a look at this and if there is actually any truth in it… And boy did I open a can of worms. The first argument is suncream or sun cream? But as a good German person that likes to add words to each other I’m gonna stick with suncream. Correct or not…

And then the fun really started! There are so many guidelines out there how to apply suncream for the start! So I’ve sifted through it all and thought it would be helpful for you to get the top facts on suncream!

  1. UVs explained

I never really understood what they meant, just knew they were bad for you. The British Association of Dermatologists explains it quite well.

UV radiation from the sun is transmitted in three wavelengths – UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC does not penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, so we only really need to protect against UVA and UVB.

UV irradiation in the form of UVA is associated with skin ageing. UVA affects the elastin in the skin and leads to wrinkles and sun-induced skin ageing (for example coarse wrinkles, leathery skin and brown pigmentation), as well as skin cancer. UVA can penetrate window glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB. UVA protection in a sunscreen will help defend the skin against photo ageing and potentially skin cancer.

UVB is the form of UV irradiation most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma risk (types of skin cancer). A sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) will help block UVB rays and prevent the skin from burning, and by extension damage that can cause skin cancer.

  1. What Factor and Labelling

The British Association of Dermatologists recommends a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 as a satisfactory form of sun protection in addition to protective shade and clothing. But how are they labelled and what do these factors mean?

Firstly SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of the amount of ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) protection. SPFs are rated on a scale of 2-50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with 50+ offering the strongest form of UVB protection.

As well as the SPF number, the SPFs are categorised as providing low to very high protection, to make the SPF guide easier to understand. The below table illustrates this:

Label SPF
Low protection 6   to 14   (i.e. SPF 6 and 10)
Medium protection 15 to 29   (i.e. SPF 15, 20 and 25)
High protection 30 to 50   (i.e. SPF 30 and 50)
Very high protection 50 +         (i.e. SPF 50+)

So we’ve all seen the SPF on products and probably also know that a higher factor provides more protection, but have you ever noticed the stars for UVA protection? I certainly hadn’t! Quite often they are on the back of the product. The star rating measures the amount of ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) protection. You should see a star rating of up to five stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating, the better.

So choose a high SPF as well as a high UVA protection (e.g. a high number of stars). Sunscreens that offer both UVA and UVB protection are sometimes called ‘broad spectrum’. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and a UVA rating of 4 or 5 stars is generally considered as a good standard of sun protection in addition to shade and clothing.

Did you know there was a rule of thumb about the length of time you can safely stay in the sun? If you take 10 minutes to turn red in the sun and use SPF 30 you can stay in the sun safely for 300min (10 x 30). However that is with regular and correct (re)application.

  1. The application

About 100 percent of dermatologists say that most people don’t follow the directions right on the bottle to re-apply sunscreen regularly. (And using last season’s suncream or one reaching its expiration date is not a great idea either.) I hadn’t even noticed that there was an application guide on the bottle! I thought it’s just simply slap it on! But oh no it isn’t. The NHS The NHS has actually published a video about how to apply suncream. Looks like it’s an actual art! http://www.nhs.uk/Video/Pages/how-to-apply-sunscreen.aspx. The gist of it is – apply it gently, not too hard. You want it to form a protective barrier not rub it too death.

Studies have found that most people apply less than half of the amount required to provide the level of protection indicated on the packaging. Areas such as the back and sides of the neck, temples and ears are commonly missed, so you need to apply it generously and be careful not to miss patches. Be especially wary of ears. I’ve had serious sunburn on my ears with massive blisters. Not fun!

There is a vast range of different product types available, including lotions, mousses, sprays and gels. Because of this variation, it is not possible to give a set amount that you should apply that is the same for all products. Individual manufacturers can provide further details specific to the application of their particular sunscreens.

There is a rule of thumb for applying lotion (even though even there the guides vary – so I’ve run with the NHS). 2 teaspoons of sunscreen if you’re just covering your head, arms and neck and 2 tablespoons if you’re covering your entire body while wearing a swimming costume.

Applying less will reduce the protection to a higher degree than is proportionate – for example, only applying half the required amount can actually reduce the protection by as much as two-thirds. The overall message in terms of sunscreen use is “more is better.”

‘Water resistance’ is tested by the ability of a sunscreen to retain its sun protection properties following two 20 minute intervals (40 minutes total) of moderate activity in water. However, up to 85 percent of a product can be removed by towel drying, so you should reapply after swimming, sweating, or any other vigorous or abrasive activity.

Another important factor is the reflection of the sun’s rays, which can greatly increase the power of the radiation, by the following percentages: snow up to 85% increase, sand up to 17% increase, water up to 5% increase.

Make sure you apply your suncream before you go out. It does start working as soon as you apply it, but give it some time to be absorbed – and if you give it a few minutes before getting dressed and moving around there is less chance of it getting rubbed off by clothing or the car seat.

  1. Reapplication and Once a Day Suncreams

Think of your skin as a sponge that needs constant ‘topping up’ to keep it moisturised. Re-apply at least every 2 hours, and more if you are in and out of water or doing exercise. If you’ve been in water make sure you reapply, as you’ll probably rubbed off most of the suncream by drying yourself off (even though you’ve bought a water resistant product).

There have also been loads of tests on Once A Day Suncreams, and most of them decrease in effectiveness rapidly towards the end of the day. So be careful to reapply even those. Better safe than sorry!

Technology these days has an answer to everything. You can buy a Smartsun UV Indicator Wristband (£4.99 for five single-use bands, M&S and Amazon), clever waterproof bands which turn beige when you need to reapply your sun lotion, and then pink when it’s time for you to get out of the sun.

  1. The Random bits

And here are the bits I found and though they might be interesting!

If you burned last year your skin is more sensitive this year according to Clare O’Connor, Boots Suncare Expert.

Citrus fruits can break down your sun protection. So be careful with those cocktails by the pool! Make sure you reapply around your mouth and lips (and on any areas you might have spilled some on…) Or you can use a lip block that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient” which should resist the chemical reaction.

SPF IN MAKEUP: These are very confusing. For any product to offer the SPF it claims, you need to apply 2mg per cm2 – which means around a teaspoon of product needs to be applied to your face. And as with sunscreen it needs to be regularly reapplied. In reality you are unlikely to do this. For example a 30ml bottle of foundation would only last six applications.

  1. Sun Safety

Most of these are common sense and you’ve probably heard them before, but couldn’t leave you without including them in this blog.

Sunscreens should not be used as an alternative to clothing and shade, rather they offer additional protection and are a last line of defence. So make sure you wear suitable clothing and sun glasses as well as a wide brimmed hat. Take extra care with children as they burn extra quickly.

Spend time in the shade when the sun is strongest. In the UK, this is between 11am and 3pm from March to October.

Use at least SPF15 but best to stick to SPF30 and a 4 or 5 star rating of UVA protection.

And of course there is the Vitamin D question as well. We need sunlight to generate Vitamin D. That’s why factor 30 is recommended. It still lets some sun benefits through – while SPF 50 is a sun block rather than a suncream. Aim to strike a balance between protecting yourself from the sun and getting enough vitamin D from sunlight. Have a look at my blog  “Are you D-ficient”.

I hope this was informative. I’ve certainly learned a few things I didn’t know before. And I’ve also found out that the comment that made me curious about this in the first place was rubbish. No idea where they got that information from. Now I just need to remember who it was that told me this so I can set the record straight for them!

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