Sunscreen for Dummies all you Need to Know

Sun, Sun, Glorious Sun.

Sunshine is not only essential for boosting our Vitamin D intake, but spending time in it also helps to make us feel good, so we don't want to block it out altogether. However, overdoing the sunshine can cause the immune system to suffer, so with that in mind, 20 minutes of sunshine per day is fine but any longer and you will either need to protect the skin with sunscreens or spend the remainder of the day indoors.

What is Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is a man-made product made up of several ingredients that help to protect the skin from the sun's harmful radiation. It is either physical (mineral) or chemical. In other words, physical sunscreens often known as 'sunblock' sit on the skin's surface and reflect the sun’s rays 'physically' blocking out the UV radiation. Chemical sunscreen's on the other hand, need to be applied around 20 minutes before exposure to the sun, and although they do a good job of blocking out the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation, they evaporate quickly so they need to be re-applied often to be effective.

What is Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation?

The sun emits 2 types of ultraviolet radiation:-

  • UVA - This radiation has the longest solar wavelength, it isn't absorbed by the ozone layer so it can penetrate deeper into the skin, even on a cloudy day. Long term exposure can cause the skin to sag and wrinkle, giving it a 'leathery' look.
  • UVB – This radiation is a shorter solar wavelength and is more potent than the UVA. Although it’s partially blocked by the ozone layer, it is considered to be the main cause of sunburn.

Are there Different Types of Sunscreen?

Basically sunscreens come in either lotions, creams, gels or oils, but if you don't like the feel of those on your skin, or if you find them just too 'messy' to apply then perhaps a sunscreen spray would be a better option. Older people would probably find the spray sunscreens a lot easier to use and less messy. Likewise with children, sprays are more convenient and quicker to apply, especially on over active children who don’t want to stand around while they are being lathered in creams or oils.

All sunscreens have an SPF, otherwise known as 'Sun Protection Factor', which measures the ability of the sunscreen in preventing the UVB damage on the skin, having said that, the SPF can only measure the effectiveness of a sunscreen against the suns UVB rays, as there is no measure available yet for the absorption of its UVA rays.

Are there Different Types of Sunscreen

What Does SPF mean?

An SPF measures how much time you can spend in the sun before your skin burns. The higher the SPF factor, the better the protection the sunscreen offers. For example, if unprotected skin turns red after 20 minutes of exposure to the sun, then an SPF of 15 will prevent the skin from turning red for about 5 hours, or 15 times longer. Most SPF 15 sunscreens are excellent at protecting against UVB rays, but be aware that paler, natural skin tones need extra protection from the sun.

SPF's and Skin Types

Redheads, Celtic and very fair people are classed as Type 1 and 2. These skin types tend to burn easily, they have a higher skin cancer risk and generally find it difficult to acquire a tan. People with this skin type should always use an SPF no lower than 30 with 4 star UVA rating.

The majority of Mediterranean and European people, along with pale skinned Asians, are classed as Type 3 and 4. This type of skin has a moderate to fairly low cancer risk, but it can still develop wrinkles and sunspots. Use an SPF30 if you want to keep your skin wrinkle free, otherwise use an SPF15 with 4 stars for overall protection.

African and Darker Asians are mainly classed as Types 5 to 7. This skin rarely burns and has a very low risk of skin cancer, that's because darker skin already has the natural equivalent of an SPF10, so it is possible to go out in the sun unprotected. Having said that, dark skin can still age with too much sun so if you are concerned about the sun prematurely aging your skin, you should use, an SPF15 with 4 star UVA rating.

Do you Need Different Factors in Different Parts of the World?

The UV radiation from the sun is stronger at the equator so therefore, a higher SPF sunscreen is essential the closer you are to it, more so for those with paler or fairer skin. The same goes for the UV radiation at altitude, the higher up you are, the higher the UV radiation, so it is important to protect your skin even when you are skiing or climbing.

How Much Should you use?

Sunscreen should be applied around 2 to 3 times daily when out in the sun, to be able to offer complete protection. Unfortunately, there are very few of us who actually do that, or who don't put enough on to do a proper job. A rough guide is about 6 average bottles of sunscreen for one person for up to one week spent in the sun. For a family of two adults and two children, about 20 average bottles of sunscreen would protect them all for one week.

Sunscreen for Special Skin Types

This amount of sunscreen needed to protect the skin from sunburn, aging and skin cancer, is far greater than the amount we actually put on our bodies, so maybe it's about time we all started thinking seriously about our skin and whether we want to suffer the damage from the sun's ray for the sake of a few more bottles of sunscreen.

Sunscreen for Special Skin Types

Sunscreens don't suit everyone, for people with sensitive skin, dry skin, fair or dark skin, babies and young children and those with special skin, here are a few tips on what to use when you are out in the sun, not forgetting the hands and face where the skin is much thinner and more prone to damage.

1. Sensitive Skin

If you have skin that is prone to allergies, it is important to avoid sunscreens that contain PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) and oxybenzone, which can irritate the skin. Choose fragrance-free sunscreens and those containing alcohol for sensitive skin, and mineral based sunscreens if you have delicate skin. Go for a gel based sunscreen if you have skin problems such as acne.  

2. Dry Skin

Dry skin can be a problem in the sun, so it's best to choose a sunscreen that is also a moisturizing lotion, this will help to hydrate the skin and stop it from drying out further.

3. Fair or ‘Freckled’ Skin

People with very fair skin or those with lots of 'freckles', are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. If you have this type of skin, you should always use an SP Factor 30 or higher. Chemical or mineral sunscreens work equally as well on this skin, provided they are re-applied frequently to ensure constant protection.

4. Dark Skin

Just because you have dark skin, don't assume that you are safe from the harmful rays of the sun, Dark skinned people still need protection if exposed to too much sun, though a lower SP factor of around 15 would be adequate, but don't use mineral based sunscreens as these will leave a chalky film that can show up on darker skin.

5. Babies and Young Children

The skin of babies and small children is not suitable for sunscreens that are meant for adults, their delicate skin can be irritated by the strong chemicals, so use a sunscreen that is mineral based or specially formulated for young skin.

6. Skin on the Hands and Face

Skin is much thinner on the face and hands, therefore it can be easily damaged and burn quicker than the rest of the body, so an SPF of 50 or 60 would be the ideal sunscreen to use. This high SP factor is also perfect for use at high altitude or where there is intense exposure to the sun’s rays. It’s worth remembering though, that too much exposure to the sun can lead to heat stroke as well as sunburn so try to spend some time in the shade to give your skin a rest.

Sunscreen Allergies

Allergies to sunscreens aren’t all that common but some people can be sensitive to the ingredients used in them, these ingredients can cause an allergic reaction called Contact Dermatitis. This is an itchy rash which breaks out on the skin and can often form into blisters. Contact Dermatitis can be caused by both mineral and chemical based sunscreens, so it’s best to avoid using them if you think you may have sensitive skin.

Sunscreen Allergies

Are Sunscreens Safe?

Although sunscreens have been around for nearly 100 years, like everything else in our modern world, there is a safety issue. The function of a chemical sunscreen is to absorb the sun's UV light, but some of it can mutate and some can produce 'free radicals' (DNA damaging chemicals) which may progress to cancers. Chemical sunscreens in particular, soak into the skin quite quickly and disperse into the bloodstream. They're not detoxified by the liver so end up traveling around the body and have been detected in urine, blood and even breast milk up to two days after just one application!

Better Safe Than Sorry

There isn't a 'perfect', one size fits all, sunscreen, it's really a question of which sunscreen suits your skin type and how often you expose your skin to the sun’s rays. Whichever type of sunscreen you prefer, always make sure you apply it 15 to 20 minutes before you go out in the sun, otherwise it will evaporate before it has had a chance to bond with the skin, which will make it less effective. Make sure you also that you re-apply whenever necessary and use lots of it.

The damage to your skin is far greater than the price of an extra few bottles of sunscreen, so the bottom line is that if you spend time out in the sun, then a sunscreen is essential to stop the harmful rays from permanently ruining your precious skin.

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