How to protect yourself from the sun

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We love the sun! And this holiday season, we know we are going to be spending a lot of time baring our skin to the glorious warmth of the shining sun, weather on the beach, in the park, or just in the backyard. Sadly, we are all aware of the pain a bit too much sun can cause our fragile skin. Overexposure to the sun’s rays can cause nasty and painful sunburn but can also result in premature aging of the skin, wrinkling, and even skin cancers such as melanoma; suddenly the sun doesn’t sound as appealing.

So how do we protect our delicate, precious skin?

The simplest of answers is also the most ridiculous – hide from the sun at all costs! That’s right, lock yourself inside, barre up all the windows, and just hibernate all day every day, coming out only in the coolness of night! We all know that type of existence is reserved for Hollywood’s vampires and would be a completely unrealistic way to live our lives. Luckily, there is an easier way. This preventative technique against the danger of the sun comes in the form of a very famous cream, known as sunscreen.

Firstly, let’s try to understand a little bit about the dangers of sunlight. Sunlight consists of several different UV (ultraviolet) rays, each at a different wavelength, affecting the integrity of our skin as they are absorbed on impact. There are 3 different UV rays created by the sun namely UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. UV-A and UV-B are the ones we are most worried about, as UV-C does not reach the earth’s surface as it is filtered out by the ozone layer.

UV-A has the longest wavelength of these ultra violet rays, allowing it to penetrate our skin deeper than UV-B. These particularly dangerous rays are present throughout the day and are responsible for photosensitivity, causing premature aging of the skin as well as contributing to skin cancer.

UV-B rays are most intense from 10am to 4pm and are the rays mostly associated with sunburn. Although these rays are partially blocked by the ozone layer, they are known to be responsible for sunburn as well as skin cancers.

UV-C rays are thankfully filtered by the ozone layer, meaning the danger of their shorter wave lengths do not reach the earth’s surface. However, with speculation and studies showing damage to the ozone layer, we might be worrying about UV-C sooner than we think.

The exposure to UV radiation is different at different places as well as during different times of the year. There is a higher exposure to UV radiation nearer the equator as well as during summer months, at higher elevations and during peak daylight times. Believe it or not, the reflection of UV rays from the snow, sand, and water increases the exposure of these dangerous rays, making certain outdoor activities significantly more risky than others when the sun is concerned.

Although staying away from the sun by avoidance and covering up, with hats and other clothing, is always the best option when it comes to the danger of the sun, it is impractical to think that this is always a possible approach. This makes something like sunscreen or sunblock an essential part of our daily wardrobe.

Sunscreen works by combining both organic and inorganic active ingredients. Ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide (inorganic) scatter or reflect UV radiation, whereas organic ingredients such as octyl methoxycinnamate or oxybenzone absorb UV radiation, dissipating it as heat. In effect, sunscreen can both reflect and absorb UV radiation, with some brands often focusing more on one of these elements. It is important to acknowledge that not all sunscreens are created equal, and it is very important to be aware of several key factors when buying sunscreen, price does not necessarily dictate the efficacy of the product, so always read the label carefully.

The first thing you might have noticed is the different number following the letters SPF. The SPF number or sun protection factor indicates the length of time the sunscreen will provide protection against UV-B rays, the higher the number the more the protection. The SPF is a multiplication factor, so if you can stay out in the sun for 15 minutes before burning, using an SPF sunscreen of SPF10 would allow you to resist burning for 10x longer i.e. 150 minutes. Products which offer some form of UV-A protection are products advertised as broad spectrum protectors.

The best time to apply sunscreen is 30 minutes before being exposed to the sun, giving your skin ample opportunity to absorb the sunscreen as well as making it less likely to wash off when you perspire. It is also important to reapply sunscreen after swimming or after strenuous activity resulting in heavy perspiration. It is recommended that after spending your ‘allotted’ time in the sun, as per the SPF you are using (i.e. 150 minutes) you avoid direct sunlight for an extended period of time. Reapplying of sunscreen has been shown to be less effective than its initial application, the harsh reality is the more time you spend in the sun, the higher your risk of sun related impact.

When applying your sunscreen, it is important that both organic and inorganic ingredients are effectively combined; you should always shake the bottle well before use. Always apply sunscreen generously, ensuring you cover each part of exposed skin effectively.

It is recommended that regular visits to a dermatological specialist become common practice, allowing them the opportunity to look out for suspicious sun spots, skin lesions and to clear you of possible skin cancers. If you find a new mole, or skin discoloration, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor, with skin cancer being one of the biggest killers throughout the world.