Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Understanding Sun Protection Products - What Does it all Mean?

beach bundle
Summer Beach Set Image by Africa Photo, thanks to Shutterstock

After spending a week away in the South of France where we had mixed weather but still some horrid sunburn I’ve been prompted to write a post about sun protection products available here in the U.K. It’s a bit of a minefield really, you choose a well known brand name like Ambre Solaire or Nivea and you assume that all is good and you have chosen well for your family but it might not be the case! Read on for a low down on what all the different terms on your packaging mean and how to make an informed choice this summer.

UV Rays
There is so much information out there about the ultraviolet rays that come from the sun and it can get a bit confusing but I’ll just share the basics in layman’s terms. UV radiation from the sun comes in three wavelengths - UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC does not penetrate our ozone and thus we’re only concerned with the other two.

UVA (Ultraviolet A - long-wave)
Most of us are exposed to large amounts of UVA rays in our lifetimes and it has long been established as a cause of premature ageing and wrinkling but was less associated with damage to the epidermis (the outer layers of the skin) which is commonly associated with skin cancer.  However this is changing as newer research shows that UVA damages skin cells in the base layer of the epidermis as well as penetrating deeply.

UVA is the dominant tanning ray and whilst many of us love that brown glow our skin develops in the summer it is actually in response to our skins DNA being damaged and these imperfections can lead to skin cancer. UVA rays are present during daylight hours and they penetrate clouds and even glass.

UVB (Ultraviolet B - shortwave)
Are the rays that cause skin reddening and sunburn. They are just as damaging as UVA rays penetrating the outer layers of the skin and can significantly contribute to skin cancer.

SPF (Sun protection factor)
I’m sure we’re all familiar with SPF. It is the theoretical time you can stay in the sun with a sun cream applied effectively before getting burnt, in comparison to being out in the sun with bare skin. So an SPF 15 should allow you to be out 15 times longer before you get burnt. It sounds good, doesn’t it? As if you can be out for ages but you have to remember, someone like me with blond hair and naturally pale skin burns in about 10 minutes in strong sun. So 15 times that is only 2 hours and 20 minutes and many people think that one application of sun cream is enough for the whole day, but it’s not! Especially if you sweat lot, have towel dried or been in the water.

30 years ago when I was a teen I remember using baby oil to get a tan and all my friends had coconut smelling oils with a factor of about 5 or 10. Thankfully now we have realised the damage the suns rays can do and we are much more careful about choosing a higher SPF. I don’t buy anything less than a factor 30 now and mostly we all use SPF 50. Of course the higher SPF sun creams cost more but it is worth it, what price can you put on your health?

It is worth noting that SPF only takes into account the effect of UVB rays. They say that a sun cream with an SPF of 15 will filter out approximately 93% of UVB rays, factor 30 filters out approximately 97% and factor 50 filters out approximately 98%. Notice that there is no total block? Also once you get to SPF 50 it is generally agreed that there is no benefit in going to an SPF 50+ Sun cream as the amount of chemicals in it may negate any beneficial effect.

back of sun cream bottle
You can see the UVA star rating and the life expectancy of this bottle of sun cream on the left of the bar code

The UVA Star Rating System
There is no universal system to convey to the public how well a sun cream blocks out UVA rays. In the U.K. Boots developed a star rating system quite some years ago now and many other brands have adopted the use of it but there is no requirement for them to do so and thus the confusion between brands continues. The star rating system operates between one and five stars with five being the best and four stars being the lowest you should consider. You might be surprised to hear that many sun creams from Ambre Solaire and Nivea are only four stars. I was shocked to find that our SPF 50+ Nivea cream has a 4 star rating. I truly thought I was buying the best protection by buying an expensive brand name sun cream. But it turns out that many of the cheaper supermarket own brand sun creams are just as good, if not better. 

The British Association of Dermatologists (B.A.D.) recommend what they call a broad spectrum suncream and that’s one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. They say you should choose at least SPF 30 and a four or five star rating.

Currently U.K. manufacturers have to label sun creams in accordance with EU recommendations and this is as follows for UVB protection, SPF -


The UVA protection should be at least a third of the SPF and then they will put UVA in a circle. You may find this as well as or instead of the UVA star rating.

Applying your sun cream
B.A.D. suggest that most people apply less than half the amount of sun cream needed to offer the SPF protection stated on the packaging. When the SPF is tested in a product, an average adult needs to apply at least six full teaspoons (around 36 grams) to cover their whole body. It should be applied around 15 - 30 minutes before going out in the sun to allow it time to dry and then reapplied every two hours to ensure adequate protection.

Some products state they are water resistant and personally I think this is misleading as all it means is that they’ve been tested for two 20 minute swims without towel drying. Water also reflects UV rays which will increase exposure and we know that our children often want to stay in the water playing for hours and most sun creams won’t give them that kind of protection, so I think something like a SPF vest is probably the answer, rather than relying on sun cream. 

woman applying sun cream
Girl applying sun cream image by Matthew Bechelli, thanks to Shutterstock

Is any tan safe?
In a nutshell the answer is no. When our skin goes red or browner it is through damage and those of us with lighter skin types need to embrace the pale and interesting look or otherwise use a safe fake tanning product to give us that summer glow. I was interested to read on the Cancer Research site that your skin does not have to be raw, peeling or blistering to be considered sun burnt. Any redness is sun burnt and that getting burnt just once every two years could triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.

Of course we all need vitamin D and a great source is natural sunlight but the NHS and B.A.D. both state that we shouldn’t risk sun damage and ultimately cancer. Vitamin D can be gained though our diet and just going about our daily business rather than sun bathing.

Recommendations for Good Practises in the Sun
  • Spend time in the shade at the hottest part of the day 11am - 3pm
  • Wear a wide brimmed sun hat and sunglasses
  • Choose clothes that naturally detract the UV more, like loose fitting darker clothes (ideally made from polyester, wool, silk or nylon) with a close weave that don’t reflect the rays or allow them to pass through.
  • Use a sun cream with at least SPF 30 and 4 or 5 stars for UVA.
  • If you plan to be out in the sun for long enough to burn then you need to apply sun cream 15-30 minutes before you go out and also once you're out to ensure there are no missed areas and that it is applied thickly enough.
  • Reapply your sun cream every 2 hours and after swimming, sweating or towel drying as it is very easy to remove.
  • The NHS recommend that babies 6 months and under are kept out of direct strong sunlight.
  • If you have lots of moles, make sure you check them regularly for any changes and consult your GP if you’re worried at all.
  • Remember the shadow rule. Holloway’s rule is an easy way to know when the sun is strongest, basically your shadow will be shorter than you.
Does Sun cream have an expiry date?
Yes it does, check on the back of your bottle. Some will have an actual date and others will show a jar along with something like 12M or 24M by it. This means the product will last 12 or 24 months once opened. Also be aware though that if you are taking your product out into the sun with you it may lessen how long it performs at the suggested protection factor can diminish with the heat.

Useful Resources
I hope this post has been useful to you and reassures you when choosing some sun cream to protect your family. If you have any other tips or gems of wisdom to share please do leave a comment.

Why not pin this post for later?

sun protection cream pin

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