A moment in the sun
01 Aug 2020

Do we really know how to protect our skin from the sun?

SPFs have never been higher, but neither has the rate of skin cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, over 15,400 people develop malignant melanoma each year, compared with around 1,800 in the mid-1970s. SPFs are now available in excess of 60, so why aren’t they protecting us?

Sun creams – saviours vs sinners

The numbering system on SPFs can be misleading. It is logical to assume that high numbered SPFs provide twice the protection, but they only block a marginal amount more rays (SPF 15 blocks 93%) and contain a much higher level of potentially harmful chemicals.

High SPFs give a false sense of security, which means people reapply them less frequently or spend longer in the sun. One contributing factor to the rise of skin cancer is that people don’t apply enough SPF, particularly if it is a high number. The advice is to cover the skin in a ‘shot and a half’  of SPF but in a study published by the journal JAMA Dermatology, only 55% of those questioned correctly identified the amount required for skin protection. 

Free radical damage

Research has shown that high SPFs can sometimes be harmful when left on the skin*. Chemical sunscreens are only effective for two-three hours after application. They absorb UV rays during this time, but once they stop doing this, the chemicals convert into free radicals which can react with DNA in cells, increasing the visible signs of ageing and the risk of skin cancer. It is therefore important to keep reapplying SPF regularly.

Stronger creams contain greater concentrations of sunscreen agents which themselves can be converted into free radicals by exposure to UV rays.”

Dr Des Fernandes.

"Stronger creams contain greater concentrations of sunscreen agents which themselves can be converted into free radicals by exposure to UV rays,” says Dr Des Fernandes, founder of Environ® skincare. It’s important to remember that SPF only shows protection from UVB rays, which cause burning, and not UVA which cause photo-ageing. Using a broad spectrum cream which protects against both is key.

 A second line of defence

To achieve superior protection against the sun, antioxidants need to be incorporated into a skincare regime. These particles “mop up” free radicals generated in the skin from UV exposure, minimising the damaging effects they can have. Apply an antioxidant sunscreen and take antioxidant supplements to protect skin over the whole. Daily use is essential. Studies indicate that even on cloudy days 80% of UVA radiation breaks through. 

Powerful protection boost

Given its impeccable skin nourishing credentials, it is no surprise that vitamin A also helps defend against UV damage. “The most powerful sun-protective molecule is the retinyl palmitate form of vitamin A, which in adequate doses, can have a photoprotective effect of SPF20 and gives additional protection against UVA”, says Dr Fernandes.

As well as applying vitamin A topically, it should be taken in supplement form. By using a combination of Vitamin A and antioxidants, it’s possible to safely expose skin to the sun for no longer than 20 minutes without sunscreen. Doing this is important to synthesise vitamin D, which is vital for healthy skin as well as preventing conditions such as osteoporosis and even cancer.