Summer is kicking into high gear – the days are getting longer and the temperature is rising – which means that it's a good time to consider our exposure to sunlight and the associated risks that come with it. In this article we’re going to take a look at sunscreen, and clear up some of the confusions many people have about how best to use them to protect their own and their children’s skin.
I’m staying in the UK this summer – do I need to worry about sunscreen?
Traditionally, many of us would head overseas for a few weeks of basking in the sun, but this year – much like last year – travel will still be very limited by the ongoing Covid crisis. Which means that a lot more breaks will be taken at home.
Although it’s a very British tradition to deride summers as consistently grey and dreary, that’s not strictly speaking the case and, especially over the last few years, we’ve seen increasingly hot spells and many heat temperature records broken.
But even if there was more truth to this gloomily overcast reputation, it’s important that we still take care to protect our skin because you can still get sunburnt even when it's cloudy. What you need to remain alert to is the ultraviolet radiation (UV) you’re likely to be exposed to.
How dangerous is UV?
UVA rays account for up to 95% of UV radiation, and penetrates the inner layer of the skin (the dermis), whilst UVB mainly affects the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis). Unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB damages the DNA in skin cells, producing genetic defects, or mutations, that can lead to skin cancer, as well as premature ageing. Whenever your skin is exposed to UV rays you're at risk of sunburn.
You can find out what current UV levels are using the UV index. This is what tells you your risk of burning, and that’s true whether it's bright and sunny or cloudy.
What is the UV Index and how does the UK score?
The UV Index (or UVI) is a standard international measure of ultraviolet radiation (UV) emitted by the Sun. It penetrates the Earth's atmosphere and can cause sunburn. The higher the UVI – its values start at zero and then can rise above 10 – the greater the potential for damage to the skin, and the faster harm can occur.
UV levels increase across the UK during the spring, reaching a peak in late June, during which time we would normally expect to reach a UVI of about six or seven – but in the summer of 2020 records were broken when a score of nine was recorded in June.
Between November and February, the UK falls under the ‘low risk’ range of between 0 and 2 on the UV index (you can find out the UVI where you are here). But low risk still doesn't mean no risk, because whilst there is very little UVB radiation, UVA is still a factor. Which means that, no matter what time of year, if you spend extended periods of time outdoors – whether for work, sport or training – are particularly sensitive to the sun, or simply concerned about the risk of skin cancer risk or skin ageing, then a safe bet is to use a broad-spectrum 30+ SPF sunscreen.
How do I select and apply the right sunscreen?
You need to protect your skin from both types of UV rays,which means buying a sunscreen with a high enough SPF and a decent UVA star rating. Sunscreens are sold with two ratings. The SPF rating scores their protection against UVB, whilst the 5-star rating scores their protection against UVA.
Skin Health Alliance’s James Stalley says:-
“The general recommendation for sensible sun protection even during Spring and Autumn or in cloudy weather is a sunscreen with a 30+ SPF rating. Look for UVA and UVB protection and ideally a 4-5 star rating. It’s also advisable to help reduce the risk of sunburn to apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to going outside, with reapplication every 2 hours or immediately after exercise or swimming.”
Another thing to remember is of course the other ingredients. These guidelines are very specific to sun protection baselines, but you still need to consider the overall quality of products to ensure they’re actually good for your skin health.
Do the same rules apply to children and babies?
Well, yes and no.
For older children, much the same protection principles as outlined above do still apply (although some guidance is a bit more cautious and encourages using a 50+ SPF factor). They also tend to be more active, and so the reapplication guidance is also more important here too.
Something to bear in mind here however with non-child-specific lotions is any additional ingredients – such as scents, perfumes, or even tanning creams – that might be unsuitable for children, or might even cause irritation or an allergic reaction.
Perhaps the simplest approach here is to remember that child-specific lotions will work just as well for you as for them. So if you have a family to consider, the simplest option might be for you all to use a child-friendly lotion.
For younger children the advice is stricter as sunscreen alone isn’t protective enough to ensure their skin is kept safe. So for those children it’s important that parents keep them in the shade as much as possible, and hats and suitable clothing should be used to cover as much of their skin as possible when they are in the sun. Sunscreen should only really be a last resort for areas of their skin that are harder to cover.
And for babies and toddlers (i.e. any child below the age of 3), the rule of thumb is that they should not be left in the sun at all. Even when not in the sun, parents need to be aware of overheating – their skin is not as developed as adults, which means they are less able to regulate temperature – and the recommendation is that they wear natural fabrics and are kept in the shade.
And remember, price is not indicative of efficacy…
...so be sure to read the labels and check what each product does and doesn’t do. A good place to start would be SHA accredited products such as Lacura (Aldi) and Asda Protect (Asda).
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