Sunscreen - the facts

Mary Tweed
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Sunscreen - The Facts

There is a wonderful moment in the year, when the gentle temperatures of spring mean that there is no requirement for layers of clothing or even a coat. However, that moment heralds several months of serious skin protection ahead and with 100,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed every year in the UK it is important to understand how to strip off safely! Gone are the days when buying the highest factor suncream available was enough to stave off sunburn, now there are all sorts of other factors (forgive the pun!) to consider when buying suncream, so what do they all mean?


In theory, it takes about 20 minutes for unprotected skin to start turning red. The “sun protection factor”, or SPF rating, protects the skin for the factor amount longer before burning. So if you are using a Factor 20 suncream, you should be able to sit out in the sun for 20 times longer than 20 minutes i.e. 400 minutes or just over 6.5 hours. In reality, people’s tolerance varies considerably.


The sun emits three types of Ultra Violet rays - UVA, UVB &n UVC - the first two of which cause damage to the skin. UVC does not reach the earth’s atmosphere. UVA is associated with speeding up ageing of the skin, by causing wrinkles, brown pigmentation and skin cancer. The rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB and can penetrate glass to effect the skin. UVB is the ray most responsible for burning the skin and is associated with malignant melanoma. The higher the SPF rating of a suncream, the more it will block out UVB rays and help protect against burning. When choosing a suncream, it is important that it protects against both UVA & UVB. NB: the sun emits ultra violet rays even when it is cold and these rays penetrate cloud, which is why we should all be applying sunscreen throughout the year.

Star Rating

The star rating (usually found on the back of a suncream) measures the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB. This means that it is possible to buy a low factor cream with a high star rating, because the UVA & UVB absorption is roughly the same, in other words, it doesn’t offer much protection. Instead, look for a cream with an SPF of 30-50+, as well as four or five star rating.


The modern curse of branding plays a large role in the sales of suncream, but the price does not necessarily correlate with the protection offered. Check the SPF factor and the UVA star rating in order to determine the protection offered. I have found suncreams, which meet the high protection standards, branded as supermarket own brands and costing a fraction of “premium” ranges sold alongside that offer less protection.


Studies have shown that we routinely use much less suncream than we need. Areas that are commonly missed are the temples, the back, neck and ears. A simple guide is that one arm needs a good teaspoonful of cream. Sweating, swimming or even rubbing your skin on a towel will remove sun cream, therefore, it is vital to reapply regularly. As well as using sunscreen, it is important to wear a wide brimmed hat, sun glasses and clothing and to try and avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for bone health and to protect against certain diseases. We get Vitamin D from exposure to the sun, as well as through eating foods such as oily fish and taking supplements. As there is a proven link between sun exposure and skin cancer, it is recommended to source Vitamin D through diet rather than risk damaging your skin.

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