There’s something quite comforting about the warmth of the sun touching our skin; a hint of a sunkissed glow can help to boost confidence and radiate health, but us Brits do have a tendency to overdo it. Our shores don’t get a huge amount of sun, so at the first sign of a sunny day we’re out on the streets in our best cut-offs and flip flops ready to baste in it like a turkey on December 25th. That makes us one of the most sunburned and sun damaged nations on the planet, because we’re just not prepared to look after our skin when we’re lucky enough to get over fifteen degrees. Unlike other countries, we’re not educated on the importance of SPF or actually how to protect ourselves from skin damage (and cancer;) we’re left floundering and doing our very best, but it’s no surprising the majority of us will see few bright red faces and painful-looking burnt patches after a few days of burning heat. So if you’ve ever found yourself wondering what all those terms really mean, how and how often you should be applying sunscreen, or why we even tan, I’m here to answer all your questions (and give you a few great product recommendations too.)
So what actually is sun cream?
Sunscreen, sun cream or sunblock are essentially liquids or creams that are applied to the skin in order to help prevent sunburn. They contain ingredients that either absorb, reflect or scatter UV rays that can cause damage to the skin, so you’re protected (to a certain degree) from the negative effects of the sun.
Why does the skin tan?
The pigment that gives the skin its natural colour is called melanin; after our skin is exposed to sunlight, the skin produces more melanin to try to absorb UV radiation and reduce potential damage – so a tan is actually a sign that the skin is trying to protect itself. Pale skin in particular is less able to absorb these damaging rays, so sun cream can help increase its ability to protect itself.
What’s the difference between UVA & UVB rays?
The sun emits two types of UV radiation – UVA and UVB – and both damage unprotected skin. UVA rays account for 95% of the light that reaches our skin and are present all year round, even when it’s cloudy and you haven’t seen the sun for weeks. They can penetrate further into the skin and destroy the key elements that give it its firmness and elasticity, having a negative impact on those key signs of ageing; they’re a major contributing factor to fine lines, wrinkles, and more importantly skin cancer. UVB rays, however, are strongest in the UK between April and October and are directly responsible for burning and pigmentation issues. The SPF rating relates to UVB rays, although many sunscreens also offer UVA protection (always worth checking!) Remember: UVA for ageing, UVB for burning.
What does SPF mean?
‘Sun Protection Factor’ is a technical and scientific measure of the effectiveness and ‘power’ of a sun cream; the higher the SPF, the higher the protection on the skin from damaging UVA and UVB rays. The number used is a calculation of how many times greater the product is at protecting your skin versus its natural ability to do so, so if you usually burn after fifteen minutes an SPF30 will times this by thirty. However, the major flaw in this approach is that the intensity of the sun’s rays varies throughout the day, so there’s no guarantee how long the SPF will remain effective – it’s a guideline only and you should continually reapply throughout the day to ensure you’re protected.
What SPF factor should I wear?
The effectiveness of a sunscreen will depend on your skin type, the amount you apply, the frequency of application and if you’ve been exposed to water (i.e. been taking cooling dips in the pool.) I’m a firm believer in the fact you should use as high a protection product as possible, as it’s better to be safe than sorry later; as I’m super pale I prefer to slap on the SPF50 multiple times a day so I know I’m minimising my chances of sore skin later. What’s also important to consider though, is that SPF15 blocks around 93% of UVB rays, SPF30 around 97% and SPF50 98% – so there’s not actually a huge amount of difference if you treble the protection you use. The key is in the application and re-application process.
What does the ‘star’ rating mean?
You may notice a little circle with ‘UVA’ and up to five stars appearing on some of your sun protection products; this is a measure of the protection against UVA rays (separate to SPF which covers UVB) and is classified as either ‘good’ (three stars) ‘superior’ (four stars) or ‘ultra’ (five stars.) You want to look for a higher star rating as possible to help protect not only against those ageing rays, but the possibility of skin damage that could progress in to cancer.
What is the minimum and maximum SPF?
At the moment the minimum SPF readily available in the UK is SPF8, although the majority of brands start at SPF15; the maximum SPF available in the UK is SPF50 as there’s no current scientific evidence of the effectiveness over this level – historically SPFs were available up to the value of 100, but they have since been removed from the market. In all honesty, even if you’re trying to tan I would recommend using as high an SPF as possible to protect yourself from damage; you’ll still tan in the sun as the body tries to protect itself, so avoiding SPF or using a really low protection factor will only impact you negatively in the long term.
When do I need to wear SPF?
Commonly misunderstood as a product to be used only when packing your case for your yearly trip into the sun, SPF should actually be worn daily – especially on the face to protect against ageing. We’re exposed to rays every day of the year, so it’s always a good idea to apply sun cream to exposed areas of skin as part of your morning regime even though it may be a bit of a faff. The good news is that many skincare and cosmetic products now contain added SPF to help protect us, but because they’re applied so thinly and smudge off easily throughout the day they don’t offer the strength that’s always inferred. As a general rule I always apply a small amount of sunscreen as a last step before makeup every single day, and there are plenty of lightweight products that make that process effortless.
How should I apply my SPF?
Studies have found that most people apply less than half of the amount required to provide the level of SPF indicated on the packaging, so many of us are stepping out with insufficient protection. When applying sun cream it’s important to make sure you’re covering all areas of your body with a relatively thick layer of lotion, waiting enough time (roughly 15-30 mins) for the skin to absorb the product and enable it to start working. Make sure you re-apply after you’ve been for a swim, rolled around in the sand or got your sweat on – anything that can rub off the formula will mean you should re-apply straight away, as well as every couple of hours to ensure you’re fully protected. In scientific tests six full teaspoons of sunscreen are used to test the efficiency of the SPF, so this should be the amount roughly used on a full size adult. Many packs often have noted the number of full body applications in each bottle, and most are only designed to hold around six full applications.
So what should I be looking out for?
EU guidelines have enabled consumers to make a more informed and educated choice when buying their sun care; on every bottle there should be a clear SPF number, an indication of low/medium/high protection and a ‘star’ rating. When looking for a sunscreen you need to ensure you’re covering all three bases: go for a high SPF, a high classification and a high number of stars. Don’t be fooled by super expensive products or clever marketing, as the price point isn’t necessarily an indicator of efficacy.
Sun care is incredibly confusing, but if you take steps to understand and change your routine accordingly then you’ll be protecting yourself as much as possible. You don’t need to spend a fortune on sun care products to get great results either, as the majority of time you’ll be paying for fancy packaging and a great brand name – rather than the juice that’s inside. In recent years the market has moved on leaps and bounds, providing us with products that not only offer protection but are easy to use and comfortable to wear; we no longer have to rely on thick, gloopy and sticky white creams to protect our skin, as there’s every
texture and benefit imaginable available.
Some of my favourite brands include Soltan for their effective and well thought through formulas (they even have sand-proof and insect repelling variants,) UltraSun for incredibly lightweight ‘lifestyle’ products (there’s sports gel SPF, tinted SPF, shimmer SPF and even sensitive skin versions) and Piz Buin (for their water-like sprays and easy to use textures.) Brands including Nivea, Garnier and La Roche Posay also offer great alternatives and portable bottles to help encourage reapplication; I love these little handbag sized bottles that are great for having with you at all points during the summer. Anything that encourages us to layer on the sun cream is a great thing in my book!
So wise up this summer, and slap on that sun cream one more time…
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