Everything you need to know about sun protection and sunscreen


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The Telegraph

Here’s a thought that might have you running for the nearest tube of sunscreen. For the first time in the UK, more than 10,000 people over 55 were diagnosed with melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – last year, according to Cancer Research UK. Indeed, rates of skin cancers in the over-55s have risen by a staggering 155 per cent in the past 20 years – they’re rising among younger people, too, but at a rate of 63 per cent. This is, after all, the generation that pioneered the package holiday, who in the Sixties and Seventies let nothing but a little olive oil get between their limbs and a tan. We’ve come a long way since then and now we all know we need high-factor sunscreen. Yet studies show most of us still don’t use it. What’s more, the rules have changed again, with some sunscreens not as effective as we think and new warnings about unfamiliar types of sun rays. Here, we talk to the experts about the new rules of skin and sun.

Don’t bother with once-a-day sunscreen

In May this year, consumer watchdog Which? tested four sunscreens labelled “once-a-day” and found that after six to eight hours, their average SPF decreased by 74 per cent, to as little as SPF 8. “I don’t think once-a-day sunscreens should exist, they’re ineffective,” says Dr Nicholas Lowe, consultant dermatologist and spokesperson for theBritish Association of Dermatologists. “Sweat, face-wiping, exercising, swimming, all mean it just won’t stay on. Put it on in the morning and reapply it at lunchtime.” The Which? research also tested 11 common sunscreens with an SPF of 30 and found own brand sunscreens from Asda, Lidl and Wilko all stood up to scrutiny.

The new rays

We know that sunlight damages the skin because of UVB, the rays that cause sunburn and can lead to skin cancer, and UVA rays, present even on cloudy days, which penetrate deep below the skin, causing premature ageing and are also linked to melanoma. A suncream’s SPF rating relates to protection from UVB, while its star rating – five being the highest – relates to UVA protection. However, UV light makes up only about seven per cent of the sun’s rays. About 50 per cent of it is made of infrared-A (IR-A) light. “IR-A appears to induce free radical formation and penetrate the skin, causing damage that can potentially lead to skin ageing. Traditional suncreams do not generally have IR-A protection,” says Dr Anjali Mahto, dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation.

If someone is concerned about skin ageing, by all means look for a sunscreen with IR-A protection, but UVB and UVA protection are still by far most importantDr Anjali Mahto, dermatologist

While there is no clear evidence that IR-A has a role in the development of skin cancer, she advises seeking out products that protect against IR-A rays, too. Lloyds Pharmacy has launched a range of sunscreens called Solero Triple Defence that protect against all three types of ray.Ultrasun products (available from Marks & Spencer) also offer triple protection. “If someone is concerned about skin ageing, by all means look for a sunscreen with IR-A protection, but UVB and UVA protection are still by far most important,” says Dr Mahto.

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Get SPF smart

In the UK, it’s illegal to label an SPF higher than 50 because beyond SPF 30, there is little jump in protection.

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Apply more

Only about 14 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women report wearing sunscreen. Even when they do, they use around half what they need. You need two milligrams of sun cream per centimetre squared of skin, says Dr Noor Almaani, consultant dermatologist at the King Edward VII NHS Hospital in Windsor and The Private Clinic of Harley Street, London. “Use about a teaspoon for the face and neck, six teaspoons for the whole body and about three to four teaspoons for a child,” she says.

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Protecting children is paramount – five severe sunburns before the age of 18 can double your risk of developing melanoma skin cancer in later life – but be careful with babies. “Babies under six months should not have sunscreen applied to them because their skin is too thin and sensitive to the chemicals,” says Dr Mahto. “They should be kept out of the sun altogether.”

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Sunscreen you can swallow? One day

Last month US dermatologist Bobby Awadalla announced the development of UVO, a drinkable sunblock that he claimed could protect people for three to five hours from sun exposure through its base of antioxidant vitamins.

But Dr Almaani says: “Taking antioxidants from foods such as tomatoes, or applying them topically with products containing vitamins C, A or E have been shown to help protect against the free radical damage caused by the sun’s rays, not as a replacement for sunscreen, but more as an additional form of protection,”

We could eventually create UV protection for certain times of year, as well as bespoke sunscreen products that could protect different types of skinMark Birch-Machin, professor of dermatology research

Meanwhile, scientists are studying plants and bacteria that have natural sun protection which might play a role in the development of new smarter sunscreen formulations. “The algae and bacteria that live in certain glaciers naturally filter out the harmful effects of UV,” says Mark Birch-Machin, professor of dermatology research at Newcastle University.

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