On the face of it, sunscreen is pretty basic. You put it on. It blocks the sun. That’s it.
I admit the simplicity of this is appealing and it’s tempting to leave things there.
However, I think it’s worth digging a little deeper because if you truly understand a few basics about ultraviolet (UV) rays, you might change your attitude to skincare for the better. In turn, this could help you look younger for longer and protect you from skin cancer.
I won’t blitz you with science and crazy graphs. I will blitz you with raw facts. And if only two people reading this blog take the advice on board, that’s two people we’ve helped and that’s all we care about.
So let’s go…
Going back to basics, what is ultraviolet (UV) radiation?
Rays from the sun reach the earth.
Some we can see. Some we can’t.
The rays we can’t see are called ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light or ‘radiation’ comes in different wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC.
The World Health Organisation classifies these ultraviolet rays as a human carcinogen.
UVA, UVB and UVC wavelengths are invisible to the naked eye.
UVA rays account for about 95% of all ultraviolet light that reaches the earth from the sun. They are present every day and can pass through glass. They are less powerful than UVB but they are much more abundant. UVC rays are filtered by the atmosphere and so do not reach the earth’s surface.
There are all sorts of things written on a sunscreen pack. Numbers. Circles. Icons. Whoever came up with the current system should be forced to live off cat food permanently. It must urgently be simplified in my opinion. However, that’s a post for another day.
Superficially, I think we all understand the language of numbers on a sunscreen pack: the higher the number, the higher the protection.
Dig a little deeper into people’s knowledge and I’m not convinced everybody truly understands the following:
- Sun protection factor (SPF) figures like 5, 15, 30 etc., ONLY refer to your protection from UVB rays;
- There is very little difference in the level of protection between SPF 30 and SP50; and
- The different SPF figures mean you are protected for different amounts of time.
And this all assumes you’re using the correct dosage because if you’re not, the rules change.
So, it’s not that simple and obvious, is it?
Not wishing to kick you while you’re down but in addition to the SPF rating, there’s a second element you really need to think about: UVA.
Today is about UVA. Points 1, 2 and 3 above are a teaser for the blog posts on UVB.
So what are the risks of UVA?
UVA penetrates the deeper layers of the skin.
Because of this, UVA contributes to skin ageing and wrinkling.
The rays get into the skin damaging the natural proteins under the skin’s surface. These proteins keep the skin tight and strong. The proteins get damaged and the skin loses its strength and support. This is what wrinkling or ageing is. Like strong pillars holding up a tent. The pillars gradually weaken and the tent folds.
For a long time, it was thought that UVA couldn’t cause any lasting damage other than the cosmetic changes I just mentioned.
Recent studies strongly suggest that UVA enhances the development of skin cancers because the rays also cause DNA damage in the skin.
That gets us to the crux of this post.
The most common misunderstanding about sun protection
I always hear guys say, “It’s not warm enough to burn”.
This is THE point you need to remember forever.
This is where your attitude to skincare needs to shift, if it hasn’t already.
It is the strength of the UVA rays reaching earth on a given day that matters more than the temperature.
I will repeat this point.
UVA reaches the earth every day. Even in winter. Even when it’s cloudy. It touches your skin whenever you are outside. It also touches your skin when you sit by a window because it can penetrate glass. You can’t see it and you can’t feel it. And all of that is potentially dangerous.
You MUST protect yourself from UVA.
So how do I make sure I’m protected from UVA?
Firstly, when in direct exposure to the sun or outdoors, make sure your sunscreen has UVA protection. Unbelievably, not all do and not all have enough.
If you are going in and outside as all of us do during our day-to-day lives, I believe strongly in using a daily moisturiser with inbuilt sun protection. For me, it’s the quickest, easiest and most hassle-free way to protect yourself. Two birds with one stone.
When choosing any sunscreen or moisturiser, read the pack and check that UVA and UVB protection is provided within the formulation. If a product says it is ‘broad spectrum’ this indicates it offers both UVA and UVB protection, a term most commonly used in the US.
In Europe, UVA is represented by a star rating system (UK) or a simple UVA logo (Europe).
When buying a sun protection product that uses the star system, choose 4 or 5 stars. If a sun protection product has the UVA circle sign, it means the EU recommendation has been met in terms of UVA cover. This is also OK.
The role of this blog is to simplify and de-mystify one careful step at a time so that you’re not putting yourself and your family at risk. If you haven’t already read them, now is the time to check out our other posts.
If I wanted you to leave this post having understood anything, it’s that UVA is everywhere, every day. It’s not about temperature. It’s about the strength of the UV on a given day. To save you checking the UV rating every single day, try and integrate sun protection into your morning routine. A daily moisturiser with built-in sun protection is an easy solution. Make sure any product you use protects against UVA. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and a UVA rating of 4 or 5 stars (or the UVA circle) is a very good standard of sun protection (supported by clothing, hats and regular shade).
As always, thanks for taking the time to read this. It was an important one.
Sources and further reading