Sun, skin and SPF

I have just returned from my first sun holiday away in years and did not realise just how much I missed them. Don’t get me wrong, my idea of a sun holiday is lazing by the pool, eating and resting whilst locking my phone away in the safe. I am too old for the whole partying and staying up all night lifestyle lol. I also actively avoid wearing a watch as I like to just go with the flow and not feel any pressure to have to do or be anywhere at a certain time. Basically a sun holiday for me is a complete physical and psychological break. I am the type of person that enjoys feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. It instantly relaxes me and the tightness in my muscles eases. It is also great for my joint pain and I feel I can move about that bit more freely. It is also great for my skin rashes as it promotes healing. Lazing in the heat of the sun also complements another love of mine, being in the water. There is nothing better than dipping into the pool to cool down. I love the feeling of floating and feeling free in the water but I am also aware of  the increased risk of my skin burning whilst drying off especially after swimming in sea (salt) water.

You just can’t beat relaxing on a beach

As much as we all love to go on a sun holiday, we may not realise it but we are exposing ourselves to a big risk factor that posses a real threat to each one of us. Many of us for whatever reason have become too complacent. This is something that is quite obvious and something I have become even more aware of because of my scientific background. This particular danger can be found anywhere, does not discriminate and can implicate any one of us at any age. It affects people here in Ireland as well as people in sunnier climates. The danger I am referring to is the giant ball of burning gases in the sky also referred to as the sun. The risk being our exposure to the powerful ray’s the sun projects. Yes when the sun shines it makes everything look great and makes everyone happy but it is something that has to be respected to fully enjoy. The damage that even slight exposure to the sun can do to the body can be truly devastating. Not only do you open yourself up to possible skin damage and premature aging but the serious risk of developing skin cancer which can and does kill.

Myself and Kev enjoying the sunshine

I don’t want to go and give you a science lesson or I don’t want to give you a lecture. You are an adult and in charge of your own body but I would like to briefly touch on the topic of skin cancer and the many preventative methods that are available. Firstly there are two categories of skin cancer; non melanoma cancers and melanoma. Although non-melanoma cancers are dangerous in their own right they are generally not as aggressive as malignant melanoma. Malignant melanoma can spread to various organs in the body at a rapid pace. If detected early it can be successfully treated and cured but if it spreads it can and does kill. I know it is the last thing you think of when you shuffle out to the sun lounger, lie down and relax in the warmth of the sun but depending on your particular skin type the chance of developing malignant melanoma can be high.  As the majority of Irish people possess type 1 or type 2 skin (as per the Fitzpatrick Scale) the chances of developing malignant melanoma is remarkably higher than those with darker skin (towards the higher end of the scale). The colour of our skin is a strong indication of how it will react and tolerate sunlight and UV rays. Olive and darker toned skin tolerate the rays better due to the natural high levels of melanin they possess. When we think of a nice golden tan we automatically assume it is a sign of good health i.e. a healthy glow but this could not be further from the truth. A tan in any shape or form is in fact a sign of skin damage. The skin releases the (brown) pigment melanin when it is exposed to the sun’s powerful UV rays in order to protect itself. There is a great little video here that explains things quite well. The best and most proven methods of reducing the risk of developing skin damage and skin cancer is to avoid sun exposure completely/prolonged sun exposure, cover up and protect vulnerable areas, wear a high SPF (and reapply it), protect your head by wearing a hat and eyes by wearing sunglasses, stay hydrated and avoid the sunshine during the hottest times of the day. For more information on your skin type, skin cancer risk or general skin query please consult The Irish Cancer Society Irish Skin Foundation.

The Fitzpatrick Scale

One of the best methods of minimising skin damage and reducing the risk of developing any form of skin cancer is to wear an SPF daily. This is highly important not only when you are relaxing on a beach in sunny Spain or skiing high up on a slope in the alps (yes even in the snow you are exposing your skin to deadly rays) but also when you are back home in Ireland. These days there are a huge variety of SPF’s to choose from that not only protect the skin but nourish and care for it too. You do not have to delve deep into any pharmacy to be greeted by the many types of SPF available on the market and in this day and age there really is no excuse not to use them. There are a variety of different formulas available from creams, oils and gels with different application methods like spray bottles etc. Even those suffering with acne and sensitive skin have the option of skin friendly suncare products. Another extremely important area I want to touch on is the correct application of a suncare product and the importance of reapplying it. Even though my skin type would be classified as somewhere between type 3/4, I am still extremely careful when I expose my skin to the sun. When it comes to suncream I am liberal with application as I always air on the side of caution, reapply after swimming/towelling and every few hours. I always use a higher SPF on my face and sensitive areas and take regular breaks from sun exposure. Once you understand your particular skin type you will get a better indication of what SPF is suited to you. As a rule of thumb it is better to overcompensate as opposed to opting for a lower SPF. Don’t forget to reapply and even though the SPF number may be higher you will still tan. There is a common misconception that using a higher SPF will mean that you will not tan. This is not true, you will tan. It will just take slightly longer but will be deeper and remain for longer.

A selection of suncare products that I currently use

So what is SPF?

Definition of sun protection factor
: a number assigned to a sunscreen that is the factor by which the time required for unprotected skin to become sunburned is increased when the sunscreen is used —abbreviation SPF. As per Merriam-Webster

Every type of sun care product (suncream/oil/lotion) on the market contains an SPF that protects the skin from harmful  UVB rays. The SPF measures a suncare products’ ability to prevent the UVB rays being absorbed and consequently damaging the skin. For example: If you were to lie out in the sun with unprotected skin for 20 minutes and notice that your skin is starting to turn red (burn), using SPF 15 would protect your skin for 15 times longer. SPF 15 filters out approximately 93% of all incoming UVB rays. The higher the SPF the more protection it provides i.e SPF 30 blocks out 97% of UVB rays whereas SPF 50 blocks out 98% of UVB rays being absorbed by the skin*. As people are becoming more aware of the dangers of the sun, the beauty industry has responded to our increased needs by developing moisturisers, makeup and haircare with built-in SPF. The level of actual sun protection is not the highest in some of these products so always air on the side of caution by using a separate SPF. Another important factor is to make sure the SPF you are buying is regulated and meets the specific UVA and UVB rating systems. These are usually expressed in stars. Unfortunately there is no definitive complete sun block available. In terms of numbers, the highest protection readily available is SPF 50 which does protect the skin for longer but does not prevent sun damage or protect you from developing skin cancer. There is nothing on the market that will create a complete barrier to protect you 100%. Another thing I feel very passionate about is educating children on the importance of applying an SPF and implementing it into their daily routine. I know when I was a child the only suncream applied to us was when we went abroad or on a very rare sunny day. Even at that it was only applied once but that shows the lack of education regarding sun damage back then. Nowadays you do not have to be a scientist or medical professional to know the importance of SPF and protecting your skin. As part of my job (which I am currently on sick leave from) I see many skin biopsy’s come through the lab querying skin cancer. These queries are only on the rise with more young people dominating the age demographics of the samples. It is not surprising that the consultants who diagnose these cases are extremely careful in the sun themselves and minimise sun exposure. When you are working in that area and see the positive cases come through you can’t help but feel an increased urge to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. It is not only essential to protect your skin but your eyes too. Last year I invested in a good pair of sunglasses (Rayban’s) that have added polarised lenses which protect the eyes from the harmful rays. It is very important to choose sunglasses that contain proper filters to protect the eyes. They were expensive but I saw them as an investment. I honestly would be lost without them. After sun exposure I always apply a liberal amount of after sun (with added aloe vera) to my skin. This helps to retain moisture and stop the skin drying out. A handy tip I picked up along the way, for any skincare issue is to have an aloe vera plant on hand. They are exceptionally easy to take care of and grow quite easily. The natural juice produced by the plant is fantastic for treating burns to the skin.

Sun essentials: sunglasses, water and aloe vera

As part of my degree in GMIT, my class undertook a laboratory experiment to test the efficacy of a variety of suncream’s (SPF 15 and SPF 30) to see if the SPF number decreased over time. The results indicated that the approved and regulated brands only decreased slightly over time with the lower results coming from suncream aged five years or more so it is important to adhere to their use by date’s. It is also important to store the product in correct conditions to minimise the break down of active ingredients from the heat of the sun. The experiments were undertaken for our own personal interest and not fully indicative of proper medical or scientific research. There is also very tight (EU and FDA) regulation on the efficacy of SPF in suncare products which is constantly updated and monitored. Finally I will leave you with the important message to be safe in the sun. Inspect your moles regularly and if you are in any doubt then please consult a medical professional. I will be posting up a lengthy review in the next little while regarding various brands of suncare products (containing a degree of SPF ranges) that I have tried and my own personal thoughts on each one so keep your eyes peeled for that.

* reference

I am neither a dermatologist, doctor or trained medical/scientific professional that is qualified to speculate on the risk of skin damage, skin cancer or the diagnosis/treatment of these conditions. Always consultant your GP if you have any concerns. My post is merely a guide to increase the usage of spf. All opinions are my own.

I would love to hear what you think by commenting below.