We all know the importance of wearing sunscreen in the summer months, on holiday especially but what are some of the facts that we may not be as familiar with?

How often should we apply SPF, which factor is best and should we wear it in winter? These are just some of the issues we will be looking at in this article.

Chemical vs Physical

Let’s start with different types of sunscreen. SPF (Sun Protection Factor) can be categorised into Physical or Chemical products. Let’s have a look at what this means.

Physical sunscreen creates a physical barrier that filters out UV rays while chemical sunscreens have ingredients that absorb and scatter the UV rays.

Physical sunscreens you may be familiar with as the type that create a very thick and often white coverage on the skin, the product literally stays on the surface of the skin to deflect and scatter the UV rays, stopping them from penetrating the skin. These sunscreens contain mineral based ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

These sunscreens tend to be much safer for sensitive skins to use as they create less irritation, they are also great for young children and babies.

Chemical sunscreens – people often misinterpret the word “chemical” to mean harmful. In fact, chemical sunscreens simply contain chemical compounds that absorb the UV and then change it into heat which is then released from the skin and scattered. They are not dangerous to use and are effective in protecting the skin from UV damage. Chemical SPF’s often are thinner and easier to apply whilst not remaining visible on the skin, however they may be more likely to cause irritation for sensitive skins due to some of the ingredients.

Will it protect me properly?

When choosing an SPF it is important to make sure that it is “Broad Spectrum”, meaning that it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays of light. UVA and UVB affect the skin in different ways. UVA has the ability to penetrate the skin at a deeper level meaning that damage caused can be more severe and longer lasting. UVB doesn’t necessarily penetrate deeply, they penetrate the outer most layers of the epidermis, but often are the rays responsible for causing surface burns – the typical sunburn you can sometimes get in hot weather. Although these particular rays do not necessarily penetrate the skin at a deep level they can still be responsible for causing long lasting damage. Put simply UVA – A = Ageing, UVB – B= Burn. It is important to note that BOTH types can cause skin cancer. Regardless of SPF value, the packaging should clearly state that it is a broad Spectrum SPF.

Higher Factor = better protection?

This then takes us on to the next point and something that can also often be misunderstood; the level of coverage in the SPF you are using. It is a myth that a factor 30 SPF will give you twice the protection of a factor 15 product. Studies show that using SPF15 filters 93% of damaging sun rays, SPF30 filters 97% and SPF50 filters 98%. Using an SPF30 will give you a high amount of coverage without being too thick, as some higher factor creams often are. Importantly, it must be added that these have to be reapplied in order to maintain the level of coverage throughout the day. Application every 2-3 hours would be optimal in summer months. More frequently if you are swimming or taking part in activity that causes you to sweat.

I’m dark skinned, I don’t need it!

All skin, irrespective of ethnicity or Fitzpatrick, needs to be protected from the damaging UV rays. Skin with high pigmentation does offer more natural protection against UV but all skin is vulnerable to skin cancers and to the premature ageing effects of the sun. 

Do I wear it all year round?

The sun’s UV rays can cause damage to your skin all year round. Sunscreen should be applied to exposed skin, and especially the face, 365 days of the year. 

Surfaces such as water, sand, concrete, grass, snow and ice reflect the sunlight onto your skin, giving you an even larger dose of the sun’s rays. So, protect your skin optimally from UV rays every day, regardless of the season.

One thing that we see a lot of within clinic is the presentation of pigmentation on the right-hand side of the face, which is often linked to clients who may spend a lot of time driving. Glass effectively blocks UVB rays but it still allows UVA rays to penetrate. Damaging rays can therefore reach your skin if you sit near a window, are in a car, or on a train. UV exposure is cumulative, and research shows that skin exposed to UV through office or car windows can cause long term significant skin damage. It is therefore important that if you do commute regularly, you must wear SPF when doing so.