The other day I had a mum in the playground asking which sunscreen I would recommend for her son who has eczema.
It’s actually a hard question to answer, even for a Consultant Dermatologist, because sunscreen use is largely linked to personal preference, much like choosing a moisturizer.
Also, the choice of sunscreens nowadays, can quite frankly be bewildering.
So as dermatologists, we suggest a variety of sunscreens that are of sufficient SpF and UVA-star rating to provide adequate sun protection and let you, the patient, make your choice.
My own favourites are the Boots Soltan® range, the Sunsense® range, La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL® or Clinique®. They all do a wide range of high factor, broad spectrum sunscreens in a variety of formulations – creams are good for the face, lotions good for the body, sprays are good for hairy areas (excellent for hairy men’s legs) – or fast moving small children!
The SpF or Sun Protection Factor is related to protection against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays with the higher the SpF, the higher the protection against UVB.
How much should you apply?
Studies have shown that we actually apply sunscreens to only a quarter the thickness that is recommended to achieve that SpF. So that means that if you had a sunscreen of SpF 50, you are probably only putting it on to a thickness that will achieve an SpF of 12.5. Similarly, if you have a bottle of SpF 6 in your hand, then you are only achieving an SpF of 1.5!
The star rating applies to the protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays with the higher the star rating, the higher the protection. Dermatologists recommend sunscreens of 5-star rating as it is the UVA rays which penetrate deeper into the skin and cause the changes responsible for skin cancers in the future.
How often should you apply sunscreen?
We do not put sunscreens on frequently enough. The recommendations are every 2 hours and after swimming or toweling dry.
What else can we do for protection?
Sunscreens do not give 100% protection against the sun.
Clothing (swim tops and t-shirts when swimming, long sleeved linen tops and long trousers when not), hats (broad-rimmed with ears and neck covered), seeking the shade and avoiding the mid-day sun (from 11am to 3pm) offer far more protection than sunscreens and this is what dermatologists recommend.
Saying that, one can even pick up sun damage from sitting in the shade. White surroundings, such as white sand beaches, paving stones, snow and even water can reflect a lot of UV rays.
Your skin type and choosing the right SpF factor
The fairer your skin, the more careful you need to be in the sun and the higher the SpF you should use.
Everyone has a different skin type but dermatologists group them into 6 groups.
Type 1 – Red or fair hair, blue or green eyes. Often burns, rarely tans, often freckly.
Type 2 – Light hair, blue or brown eyes. Usually burns, sometimes tans.
Type 3 – Brown hair and eyes. Sometimes burns, usually tans.
Type 4 – Dark brown hair and eyes. Rarely burns, often tans.
Type 5 – Dark brown hair and eyes. Naturally brown skin.
Type 6 – Black-brown hair and eyes. Naturally brown-black skin.
The lower your type number, the more careful you need to be – and the more important it is to use a high SpF factor.
Tans – and what they really mean
To many people a tan looks healthy – but to a dermatologist a tan is an indicator that that skin has picked up some sun damage. A tan is a response of the skin to the damage by the UV in sun rays; it is a protective mechanism.
Tans are never permanent but the damage left by UV rays can be irreversible. Sunburn is when the skin has gone red in the sun. It does not necessarily have to be raw, peeling blistering skin. Multiple episodes of sunburn are not good; more than 6 episodes is associated with a higher risk of melanoma.
So, needless to say, my response to that particular mum was a bit long-winded and I think her eyes were starting to glaze over by the end. Hopefully yours haven’t!
Dr Sandy Flann, Consultant Dermatologist