Sun Care Advice

Some Cold Truths About Sun Protection Products

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in Ireland. The good news is that you can greatly reduce your risk simply by being sun aware. However, there are some common myths regarding sun protection, generated by some sun care manufacturers and so-called experts, that have caused confusion with the public.

Sunburn should be avoided at all costs on two accounts:

  1. It can ruin your holiday and;
  2. It heightens the risk of skin cancer so it is vital that you take adequate care especially during long exposure to the sun, even when the sky is cloudy.

And sunburn occurs for two main reasons:

  1. Many people don’t apply enough product and;
  2. They stay out in the midday sun, especially on the first days of a holiday. Holidaymakers often go out to the pool or beach late morning to lie in the sun all day, including the midday sun, then they wonder why things go wrong!

What is the meaning of sun factor (SPF)?

Thirty years ago, the highest factor you would see in the shops would have been a factor 10. Now we know that we should always consider using an SPF of 15 or higher with UVA protection. A rough guide to the factor required is based on our own natural burn time without sun protection. For an adult this can normally be 10 – 20 minutes. Then multiply this by the SPF, so if your burn time is 20 minutes and you are using a factor 20 this equals 6 hours 40 minutes. However, children’s normal burn time could be about 5 minutes, in which case the same factor would last around 1 hour 40 minutes. When calculating the time factor one has to be aware of the midday sun between 11am and 3pm. You should plan your outdoor activities to avoid exposure at these times.

In any case, for the majority of the population 10 – 15 minutes daily exposure of the face and hands to the sun without sun protection and an adequate diet provides a sufficient level of Vitamin D.

There is no sun product that will give you 100% protection. Don’t be put into a false sense of security by using high sun factors. Quite simply, would you put your hands into a hot oven to retrieve something from it without wearing oven gloves?!

When looking at the sun care shelves in retail outlets you will see products up to a factor 50. The maximum factor that one should consider is 30, as any factor over this is driven by marketing. The difference between a factor 30 and a factor 50 is minimal. Unfortunately, at best there is only one percent increased protection, which gives a false sense of security. You may be able to see the difference with small readings in the lab but in reality, they don’t really mean anything.

Experts would even go as far as to say that a factor 15 properly applied is all you require. We would go along with this assessment as most people using cream based products only apply one quarter to one third of what is required.

When should I apply sun protection and how often?

Sun protection products normally fall into three categories: cream, lotion and spray, that be can aqua (water) based or non-aqua based, with varying characteristics. When applying sun protection, the manufacturer’s recommendation should be followed at all times.

However, a product should be applied generously 20–30 minutes before exposure to the sun, by evenly rubbing it on to the skin and allowing it to dry naturally. Ensure that you do not sit down or lean against anything that could absorb the product before it dries. Do not put on clothing before it dries, where you require protection as, this could minimize the sun protection.

Over the last 20 years, there have been developments in sun protection products that have moved their frequency of reapplying to every four, six, eight,10 hours. However, one still must stay out of the midday sun.

I have already spoken to one spokesperson of a leading UK cancer charity after a sun protection conference about why she recommended reapplying so frequently, and why she was recommending inferior products that only lasted two hours. She could not answer. I also spoke to another eminent doctor privately after his speech in this respect. His only defence was that two hours was a good “sound bite”, so I do not know where they are getting their information from, but it is not giving the public an accurate picture. The only defence for reapplying is that if you possibly miss an area this might give protection to that area.

In Summary, when venturing into the sun remember:

  • Avoid the midday sun between 11am and 3pm.
  • Apply plenty of sun protection product.
  • Apply sun protection 20–30 minutes before going into the sun, and let it dry naturally.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.