Taking sun care seriously
It might feel like it’s always cloudy here in the UK, but with those long-awaited summer months on their way, we can’t neglect the importance of staying safe in the sun. Sunshine is vital for our health and wellbeing: it provides our bodies with vitamin D and lifts our spirits after a long, cold winter.
But it’s also vital we protect our skin - even on a mild day when it doesn’t seem sunny enough to cause sunburn.
Why sun care is so important
Exposure to the sun, or using sunbeds, can increase your chances of getting skin cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, melanoma skin cancer is the 5th most common cancer in the UK, and a staggering 86% of these cases are preventable.
Some of the most common risk factors for developing skin cancer can include fair skin, a history of sunburns and excessive exposure to the sun. Even just one or two instances of blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can increase a person’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life.
Skin cancer isn’t the only risk - exposure to the sun without proper protection can also:
- Speed up the ageing process
- Cause blisters and sunstroke
- Weaken your immune system
- Lead to dehydration and heat exhaustion
If you’re dreaming of a summer tan or a relaxing afternoon in the garden, the risk of heading out without sun protection simply isn’t worth it. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to stay safe so you can still enjoy the sunshine.
The science behind sun care
Applying sunscreen might seem like a messy inconvenience, but it provides vital protection. Sunscreen works by blocking UV rays, absorbing the radiation before it can reach the skin.
UV radiation comes in three different wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA and UVB are the ones we need to worry about, as these can penetrate the skin and cause damage.
UVA is responsible for ageing, affecting the elastin in the skin which causes wrinkles, pigmentation and even skin cancer.
UVA rays can even penetrate through glass, potentially damaging your skin even when you’re behind a window. UVB rays are most responsible for sunburn, with strong links to melanoma skin cancer.
To fully protect your skin from both types of UV radiation, you need to look for a sunscreen with both UVA protection and a high SPF.
Which SPF do I need?
To protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB radiation, you’ll need to look for a ‘broad-spectrum’ sunscreen. A standard SPF won’t protect your skin from UVA rays; broad-spectrum sunscreens are the only option that provides full protection.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor - the higher the number, the better job it does at protecting your skin from UVB rays. Dermatologists recommend using a minimum of SPF 30 every day, even if it’s cloudy or you’re spending the day indoors.
Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 will protect your skin from UVA rays coming through the window when you’re inside, and UVB rays when you step outside. If it’s a sunny day with a high UV index of 6 or over, you should use SPF 50+ and try to avoid the midday sun.
That being said, there’s absolutely no harm in using SPF 50+ every day - this is a great habit that will provide you with the best possible protection at all times.
Broad-spectrum when referring to sunscreen means that it protects against UV (ultraviolet) rays, more specifically, UVA and UVB rays.
These rays can cause lasting damage to the skin, and deep beneath the skin - they can even change your DNA. Your sunscreen needs to specifically block these rays, and often the product will be labelled as ‘broad-spectrum’ to indicate that it protects against both types of rays.
Alternatively, you may also see UVA and UVB clearly labelled on the packaging.
UVA vs UVB rays - what’s the difference?
There are actually three main types of ultraviolet rays including UVA, UVB, and UVC, the latter being the most harmful of the three but poses the least risk as it doesn’t penetrate the earth’s atmosphere. We’re more concerned with UVA and UVB rays as they have a direct impact on our health.
Both UVA and UVB are absorbed into the skin and cause a great deal of harm. UVA rays, however, penetrate deeper into the skin, they’re present all through the day and can penetrate through clouds and even glass.
UVA rays are associated with more types of skin cancers and are responsible for premature skin ageing as they can reach the dermis - the middle layer of skin after the epidermis. UVA rays penetrate deep beneath the skin’s surface and change DNA in your skin cells, causing them to mutate and grow, essentially becoming cancerous.
Although UVA rays can cause tanning, the effects are not as visible as UVB rays which are responsible for the external damage to the skin known as sunburn.
Sunburn, tanning, and wrinkles are all signs of skin damage caused by UV radiation. It’s vitally important to protect yourself against this radiation, not only to avoid cosmetic issues but also more serious types of skin cancers such as melanoma.
What UVA rating means
On any bottle of sunscreen, you should see ‘UVA’ followed by a number of stars. These stars are an important indicator of how well the sunscreen protects against UVA rays. If you’d like to delve deeper into the science behind this, the rating is a measurement of how much a sunscreen absorbs UVA rays compared to UVB rays.
The stars are rated from 1-5, 5 stars being the most effective at protecting against UVA rays.
Alternatively, if you see UVA in a circle (see image above), this is a European marking that indicates UVA protection that meets European recommendations.
To add to the confusion, you may also see ‘PA+’ which is simply another rating for UVA protection. It’s used more on international brands of sunscreen, and like the UVA star rating, the more plus signs you see the more protection you’re getting against UVA rays.
Your sunscreen checklist
Don’t compromise when it comes to sunscreen. If it doesn’t have everything you need to fully protect your skin it’s not worth buying.
Now that you have a better understanding of what the scientific jargon means, shopping for sunscreen should be much easier.
Your sunscreen must have the following:
- Broad-spectrum protection
- SPF of at least 30
- At least a 4-star UVA rating or ‘UVA’ should be clearly marked in a circle to show that it meets European standards
Last but certainly not least, your sunscreen must not be past its expiry date. Expiry dates may not seem important when it comes to skincare, but it’s really important for the effectiveness of suncare.
Out of date sunscreens are ineffective and won’t protect your skin from UV rays, leading to serious skin damage.
Some sunscreens will have the expiration date clearly displayed on the packaging, and others can be quite vague. You may see an icon of a jar opening that has ‘12m’ printed on it, or there may be a different number such as ‘18m’ or ‘24m’. This is an indicator of how long the product can be safely used after opening. If it is 12m, this means that you can use the sunscreen for 12 months after opening it.
If you can’t remember when you last bought or opened your sunscreen, it’s fair to say it was most likely a long time ago and you should probably purchase another. If in doubt, throw away your old sunscreen and purchase another for the safety of your skin.
Don’t forget about your eyes
We know how important it is to protect our skin from the sun’s UV rays, but are we paying enough attention to our eyes?
UV radiation from sunlight can harm our eyes, leading to eye conditions such as:
- Eye cancers
- Growths on the eye
- Snow blindness (caused by reflections from snow, ice, sand or water)
Eye conditions can take many years to develop, so every time you go outside without proper eye protection you can increase your risk. The best way to protect your eyes from UV radiation is with a pair of UV-blocking sunglasses.
When choosing your sunglasses, look for 100% UV or UV400 protection to make sure they’ll work properly to shield your eyes from the sun. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat along with your sunglasses can also provide added protection.
You should never look directly at the sun at any time - doing so can cause a serious injury called solar retinopathy that leads to temporary or even permanent blindness.
How to stay safe in the sun
Keeping ourselves protected from the sun is extremely important for our health. By following the steps below, you can keep yourself protected from skin cancer, sunburn, premature ageing and various eye conditions.
These tips are vital to protecting yourself from sun damage, even if you’ve got dark skin or you tan easily without burning.
To protect against sun damage and keep yourself safe at all times, you should always:
- Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily with a minimum of SPF 30
- Reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours
- Reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming or sweating
- Wear protective clothing
- Wear UV-blocking sunglasses
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat
- Avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest between 11am and 3pm
- Take extra care with babies and children