Summer is almost here! And with it’s arrival comes the annual search for the suncream bottle. While the message has got through to most of us about the importance of using skin protection when in the sun, surveys reveal that many of us aren’t using products correctly, and are consequently putting ourselves at increased risk of skin related conditions, and most worryingly, skin cancer. Getting sunburn just once every 2 years can triple your risk of skin cancer and yet, according to skin experts, 9 out of 10 cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, could be prevented, by avoiding sunbeds and using adequate sun protection.
We’ve written about the effects of heatstroke before and with the increasingly hot temperatures around the world, it is critical that we protect ourselves from this condition. You can read that post for more information on heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and the effects of being out in the sun on the body. In this blogpost, however, we want to explain the confusion that exists around the use of sun protection creams. How much should we apply and how often? Sunscreen or sunblock? UVA protection or UVB? Which SPF? There are so many factors (no pun intended) to consider, and we’ll go over them all, also uncovering some of the myths about sun protection and the potential dangers when we don’t use suncreams properly.
To start with the basics, lets analyse exactly what happens when we tan. After our skin has been exposed to sunlight, pigment cells called melanocytes produce more melanin in an attempt to absorb UV radiation and, as a consequence, the skin becomes darker. The problems start when too much UV starts to damage the DNA of the skin cells. If enough DNA damage builds up over time, it can cause cells to start growing out of control, leading to skin cancer. So the bottom line is tanned skin equals damaged skin, and this can be dangerous if it occurs regularly or intensely. Caucasian skin is more at risk of damage than darker skin types, where melanin production is continuous, meaning that as the cells are constantly protected by the melanin, the incidence of skin cancer is much lower.
These are often used interchangeably but are actually two very different types of sun protection. Sunscreen offers a chemical defence, absorbing the sun’s rays before they reach and damage the dermal layers of our skin. As sunscreen has to be absorbed into the skin to work, it should be applied 20 minutes before going into the sun. Conversely, sunblock sits on top of the skin so can offer immediate protection, acting as a barrier and reflecting the suns rays away from the skin. Both types are effective in protecting your skin, so according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you should base your choice on which product works best for you. If you have sensitive skin, or suffer from conditions such as rosacea or certain skin allergies, you may struggle to tolerate the chemicals found in sunscreens and are more suited to the mineral-based sunblocks which use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. However, a sunblock tends to have a thicker, more opaque consistency that makes it harder to spread over the body, meaning it can often be seen after application which is unappealing to many.
In a nutshell – both. UV radiation from the sun, which is what causes the damage to our skin cells, is transmitted in three wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC. As UVC doesn’t penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, we only need to worry about the first two. UVA affects the elastin in the skin, leading to wrinkles and sun-induced premature ageing, as well as skin cancer. It can pass through glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB. UVB is responsible for the majority of sunburn cases which have strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, the 2 most common types of skin cancer. Some creams are now showing a UVA* rating which indicates the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB.
This stands for Sun Protection Factor, but strictly speaking should be called Sunburn Protection Factor, as the number refers primarily to protection against UVB rays and potential sunburn rather than UVA rays. Rated on a scale from 2 to 50+, it works on the theoretical basis that if it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF of 15 allows you 15 times longer in the sun before your skin starts changing colour. However, most dermatologists would argue that spending this amount of time in the sun without any protection is still too long. SPF’s of 30 plus are recommended as a satisfactory form of sun protection combined with shade and clothing and will block out 97% of rays.
Armed with the knowledge above, we should in theory be keeping ourselves safe. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about how to use suncreams properly, so here are some do’s and don’ts.
While the effects of sunburn are all too easy to spot and feel, skin cancer is less obvious. If you notice any unusual or persistent changes to your skin, go to your doctor. Unusual skin markings can have many causes, but the earlier skin cancers are detected, the easier they are to treat. You should visit your doctor if you notice any of the following to a mole, freckle or just a normal patch of skin:
If you’re any doubt, try using the Isabel Symptom Checker and discussing the results with your doctor.