With so many different types of sunscreen on the market today, it can be hard to know which type is best for sun protection. And that’s if you don’t even try to contemplate what Sun Protection Factor (SPF) you need to protect yourself from skin cancer and other damage from ultraviolet rays such as premature ageing. Twenty years ago, many people used to view sunscreen as optional. Thirty years before that, sunscreen had barely been invented and everyone thought SPF 2 (yeah, you read it right) was the biggest thing ever. These days, we’ve all been terrified into knowing better, and advances in SPF technology means we can all afford to protect ourselves from UV sun damage. Skin cancer is the ninth most common cancer in Europe (there are actually three main types of skin cancer, but they put them together for this statistic), and malignant melanoma (the really bad one) is the 19th most common cancer worldwide. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, these figures are rising quickly, because our parents and grandparents (and so on) trashed the O-Zone layer that used to reflect many more of the harmful UV rays back out into space. So the meek inherit the Earth – but only after the pushy have wrecked it for everyone. Thanks, gramps. Isn’t it handy that they invented sunscreen around the same time we really needed it?
More importantly, no statistic is ever going to show whether skin cancer will happen to you or not. Since sunscreen is really good at preventing premature ageing, and protects you from ultraviolet rays, why risk it at all? Here’s the types of sunscreen and their pro’s and con’s:
Typical range: Factor 50 and over.
This is the gloopy stuff that looks like emulsion paint when you put it on your skin. It is favoured by very pasty looking people (the correlation is probably because it makes you look whiter) and is renowned for being able to block EVERYTHING. But is that necessarily a good thing?
According to Model Beauty Secrets, you should be using factor 50 and over. My aunt, a nurse practitioner (no, Americans, it’s not like being a nurse, it’s like being a doctor with less pay), also recommends factor 50+ during summer months.
But there was that rumour last year about whether high-factor sun block caused Vitamin D deficiency. I’ve written an article all about Vitamin D that’s very scientific and much more comprehensive than anything I’ve seen to support this theory, and here’s what I think: If you don’t get Vitamin D from your diet, for example if you are vegan, then you need to get it from somewhere. HOWEVER, if you don’t get the cholesterol (as vegans don’t), going unprotected in the sun is useless because your body won’t have any raw materials to turn into Vitamin D! I’m glad to see this myth getting shelved again for the time being, but I do think our fear of cancer and ageing is starting to spoil the fun of going out on a sunny day – with OR without sunscreen.
My biggest gripe with high-factor sun block is that it suffocates my skin, overloads it with crap, and makes me break out in horrible spots. That can’t be good for you either, and I can’t see models walking round with white skin and red spots all over to combat fear of ageing – surely ageing skin is just as bad as red breakout spots! It’s a trade off, though – if you burn easily and have very fair skin, or if you’re a child, use sun block. Otherwise, go for something lighter and re-apply regularly.
Tanning Oil (with SPF):
Typical range: Factor 2-15
This is a light SPF for people who wish to tan in the sun. I’ll be honest, I’ve been using this stuff during the thirty degree heat wave we’ve been having in the UK this week (I use the factor 15). I’m not convinced it’s actually making me tan any quicker than normal sunscreen, but it definitely feels nicer on my skin, is quicker and easier to apply, and leaves me feeling non-sticky, which are all a good thing.
The cons are if you have greasy skin this might not be for you (I have normal skin, bordering on very slightly dry), and obviously it’s not going to be great for sitting around the house in your best dress – you might get oil stains. But for its intended purpose – tanning – it’s the best sun protection and skincare you can get, as it doesn’t leave your skin feeling overloaded.
Face Sun Cream:
Typical range: Factor 20-50
This is a special type of sun cream that is made for the more delicate skin on your face. After all, you wouldn’t use body lotion on your face, so why use body sun cream on it? The pros are that it’s usually formulated to be non-greasy, non-shiny and some of them are even gels that are supposed to be more hydrating (for my normal skin I disagree and feel drier after using a gel for some reason). The downsides are that hardly any shops actually stock it, and that it can cost the same for a tiny tube as it costs for a whole big bottle of the body sun cream. Avon does some good ones but they can be very expensive so keep an eye out for special offers.
Facial Moisturisers with Sun Protection:
Typical range: Factor 10-20
These are usually daily moisturisers such as Olay that have a small amount of sunscreen in them. The advantage is that you don’t need a separate cream for sunny days, but the disadvantages are that you probably won’t re-apply it during the day, and that means that the sun will burn through it as the day goes on. Factor 15 needs to be reapplied every 20-30 minutes in direct sun exposure or on a cloudy day, twice during the day (source here) and most people put their face cream on and forget about it. This leads to premature ageing, so you’re better off going barefaced and suncreamed in summer or on sunny days (remember you can even burn while skiing, so cream up whatever time of year that the sun is out) so that you can re-apply without removing all your makeup. Additionally, it’s only really useful if it’s factor 15 and above, as I discussed earlier, and annoyingly they don’t seem to do an SPF 50 day cream worth a damn.
Body Sun Cream:
Typical range: Factor 15-30
This is the best sun protection for most people. It isn’t too cloggy and isn’t too lax on the protection, and it goes well under normal clothes without causing grease stains or other problems. The advantages are that it’s cheap and easy to come by, and that it usually comes in a good sized bottle so you don’t need to worry about whether you have enough to keep reapplying. The disadvantages are that it won’t protect you enough if you’re pale or a toddler, and that it can cause you to break out if you use it on your face.
What about UVA and UVB?
Most sun creams nowadays protect against both UVA and UVB. UVA can age us and UVB can burn us, so finding a sunscreen that protects against both is important. The SPF on the bottle usually refers JUST to UVB, which prevents burning, but does nothing to stop premature ageing (just to make it more complicated)! To find out the UVA rating, there is now a labelling requirement that if it says “UVA” on the label, a sunscreen has to protect you against 1/3 of the amount of UVA of the SPF. For example, if your sunscreen was SPF30, with a UVA sticker on the bottle, it would have a UVA SPF of at least 10. If there’s no UVA logo, there is no obligation to protect you from UVA. To make it more complicated, there’s also UVC, but apparently that still gets stopped by what’s left of the O-zone layer.
General Sunscreen Tips:
- The bottle needs to be kept in a cool place: This is so the suncream doesn’t degrade from the heat – yep, suncream has to be kept out of the sun. The fridge is good if you’re in a super-hot country like Greece or Tunisia, but in the UK it should usually be fine in a cupboard, drawer or shelf in your house.
- Don’t forget the lips! Your lips are unable to produce melanin to protect themselves from the sun so they need all the help they can get – an SPF 20+ lip balm is perfect for men and women alike.
- Don’t forget your scalp either! You can either spray suncream onto it directly or wear a hat, but don’t get sunburn on your scalp, I have it on high authority that it’s a terrible place to get it! The hat is the better option if you need to protect your hair as well. Baldies and people with a shaved head should use a high SPF because most of the sun will catch your head.
- Follow the airport’s rules on what size bottles you can take with you: It’s really embarrassing to be made to throw away all those suncreams and after suns when you get to airport security, and it’s a surefire way to annoy the other passengers who followed the rules (yes, the rules are really dumb, but you can’t change ’em, if you don’t like them, travel overland like I do most of the time).
- Reapply it regularly: Often if you touch your skin (e.g. your arm) and it feels dry (like it doesn’t have any moisturiser/suncream on) then you need to reapply. If you can’t tell, then reapply to be safe.
Which sunscreen are you using during this heatwave? Let me know in the comments!