Take a Brit to the Mediterranean and we’ll be diligently gossiping about factor 30, making sure to avoid direct sunlight in the mid-day danger zone and returning home with a healthy holiday glow. Just don’t ask us to navigate any kind of solar manager at home.
For some reason, we still consider a bottle of Ambre Solaire a holiday purchase; still chance our luck even on the hottest days; end up getting burned and irritated when the temperature exceeds approx. 26C. Example: I lay on a beach in Barcelona for a week in June in 30 degree heat and didn’t get burned once (I have red hair and freckles, so consider this an achievement), but in the current hot weather in July I didn’t think on packing sunscreen for an afternoon at my local lido; in a surprise to absolutely no one, I came away with my chest and left knee about the color of a freshly boiled lobster.
In case you weren’t aware, the UK is currently experiencing a heatwave. And it’s fair to say that we’re not very good at it. While many of us may be mindful of the harmful UV rays on holiday, we are exceptionally bad at looking after ourselves when it’s hot at home. More than a quarter of us think we don’t need SPF in the UK because “the sun isn’t strong enough”, according to a recent survey, which also found that most of us want to slather our kids in factor 50 but don’t wear it themselves, while one in six do not think they need sunscreen if they are already wearing a beauty product with some sun factor in it.
Given that there’s a chance some parts of the UK could reach 40 degrees in July (this week alone will see highs of 34), there’s surely never been a better time to finally grab the sunscreen. That’s why I spoke to the experts to find out everything you need to know.
The safest sunscreen? Look for star ratings on the bottle
There are three things you want from your sunscreen, says Prof Brian Diffey of the British Association of Dermatologists. First, you need an SPF that’s appropriate for what you plan to do in the sun – factor 30 or higher if you’re going to be out in it for more than just a few minutes, he says. Second, you need the type of sunscreen that will absorb over “a broad spectrum of the different UV wavelengths”.
“The goal of it is the star rating, which you find on the back of a bottle of sunscreen,” he says. “The star rating goes up to five stars; you should look for one that offers four or five star protection. This means that you get broad protection over most of the UV spectrum.”
Third is what Prof Diffey calls “compliance”. “You want to choose a product that you find comfortable to use,” he says, otherwise you’ll be less inclined to reapply or even apply a particularly thick primer.
How much sunscreen is the right amount?
The protection you will get from your sunscreen depends in part on the concentration of active chemicals the manufacturer has used (it is these “active chemicals” that will absorb the many different parts of the UV spectrum). But it’s also about how thick you apply it. “If you apply a thin layer of sunscreen, it absorbs a very small number of the sun’s UV rays,” says Prof. Diffey. “So the protection factor — even if you use factor 30 — might be just that [operating at] a five or ten in reality.”
Most of us typically use sunscreen at about half the thickness the manufacturers test it at, says Prof Diffey. “That means the coverage delivered to you is about a third to a half of what’s on the bottle.”
For good coverage on the face and neck, aim to apply half a teaspoon at a time, says Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme, a medical consultant at beauty brand CeraVe. “An easy way to measure this is to use two full fingers.” Dr. Ejikeme recommends swiping sunscreen down the length of two fingers, pressing your fingers to each cheek, then forehead and chin, before rubbing it all in. For the whole body, you need something more like “a golf ball,” she says.
“Remember that it needs to be reapplied every two hours, or more often after swimming, heavy sweating or toweling off.”
Know your UVA’s from UVB’s
Sunscreen and beauty products often claim to be UVA or UVB resistant and the distinction is important. UVA is present all year round – these are the rays that penetrate deeper into the skin and cause the skin to age. It is UVB rays that cause sunburn and skin cancer.
When browsing the sunscreen shelves, it’s crucial to look for “a high SPF value [SPF is a measure of protection against UVB rays] as well as the circled UVA logo,” says Dr Hiva Fassihi, dermatologist at La Roche Posay. “This means the product will provide the best possible protection against sunburn and skin cancer and will also protect against UVA radiation which causes skin ageing.”
It is worth remembering, says Dr Ejikeme, that UVA rays “will penetrate glass”. “So if you’re planning a long road trip or sitting all day by a window in your office, UVA protection in your sunscreen is important.”
Train your personal SPF
If you tend to slather on any old factor without paying much attention to how much protection you need, or swear you’re a factor 15 person but find yourself burning, some sun may be in order -mathematics.
It’s tempting to assume that your personal SPF is a simple calculation of the time you spend burning multiplied by whatever the factor is. So if you burn after 10 minutes in the sun, using a sunscreen labeled with SPF15 should mean you can safely stay in the sun for 150 minutes before burning. But for most, that won’t be the case.
The British Association of Dermatologists says that a safer way of thinking is that applying sunscreen with SPF15 results in a UV exposure “one-fifteenth of what you would get if you hadn’t used any sunscreen”.
Animal, vegetable or mineral – how “natural” should your sunscreen be?
Sunscreens are often divided into two camps, referred to on the packaging as “mineral” or “chemical”. The names are a bit misleading, says Prof Diffey, as all sunscreens contain chemicals of some kind. More precisely, sunscreens contain either organic or inorganic UV filters, or, as with most standard sunscreens, a mixture of both.
“What manufacturers tend to do these days is use two or three organic chemicals and they’ll mix it with an inorganic chemical like titanium dioxide,” says Prof Diffey.
Inorganic filters such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are often referred to as “physical” or “mineral” as they “reflect and scatter UV rays,” says Dr. Fassihi. They tend to be found in children’s sunscreen and can leave a white residue on the skin and feel a bit greasy.
“Chemical sunscreen ingredients are effective in absorbing UVR and are cosmetically much more acceptable,” says Dr Fassihi. They tend to have a lighter feel, which means they go on more easily.
For Dr Sarah Tonks, a dermatologist at the Lovely Clinic in London, chemical sunscreens are a no-go. “I don’t use any chemical sunscreens. First, it gives me breakouts, and second, I’m worried about [impact on the] coral.”
National Geographic estimates that 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes up in our oceans every year, which can be toxic to marine life and coral reefs. Earlier this year, Holland & Barrett banned chemical sunscreens. Meanwhile, dermatologists say “mineral” sunscreens tend to irritate your skin less.
At the end of the day, they both protect the skin, so the best thing to do is find one that you really find palatable to apply.
Sunscreens once a day do not work
Which? tested once-a-day sunscreens in 2016 and found a 74 percent reduction in protection by the end of a day’s use. Both Cancer Research UK and the British Association of Dermatologists advise against their use, and it is worth noting that they are banned in Australia. They risk giving you a false sense of security when you can rub off the cream with your clothes and discover that the protection diminishes after a swim.
Invest in a good facial sunscreen
Dr Tonks says it’s important to choose a face cream that’s kind to your skin. “It’s about how reactive the face is. So I know if I use one that’s meant for the body on my face, I’m going to get blemishes.”
She finds that the cream’s texture is often less appealing in cheap sunscreens, which makes it far less appealing to wear on the face. “The wording is just not as nice. You can see the cast on the skin and it can often look quite white.”
As always with beauty, you can splash out if you’re so inclined. “You have these really fancy SPFs from brands like Skinceuticals that actually help with pigmentation. They have one called Ultra Facial Defense that actually helps get rid of the pigmentation you already have.”
But you don’t have to splash out. “I don’t think La Roche Posay is particularly expensive for their SPF and I think their products are fantastic,” says Dr Tonks.
That the SPF in your tinted moisturizer isn’t enough
It’s tempting to just rely on a dash of SPF in your moisturizer or foundation instead of slathering sunscreen over a freshly made face, but on a hot day it really won’t cut it, says Dr Tonks.
“It is important if you are going to be in strong, direct sunlight to use a separate SPF. The things in make-up are just “nice to have”. It’s not really going to be enough because you’re not going to cover enough of your face with it.”
Apply sunscreen before applying makeup and instead of a facial moisturizer (another reason why it’s worth investing in a good one). Then a facial spray can be useful for re-application, says Dr Tonks. “Supergoop makes one that you can spray on. It has an SPF in it. If you’re out in the sun and need to wear sunscreen over your makeup, it’s better than nothing.”
Seven super sunscreens to buy this summer
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light Invisible Fluid SPF30, £14.40, Looks amazing. Recommended by dermatologists as a light, fairly affordable facial sunscreen. It is hypoallergenic, so it should irritate the skin less than others.
Nivea Sun Protect Moisture SPF30, £6, Boots. In an attempt by the consumer magazine Which? this passed SPF and UVA tests while being the easiest to use.
Skinceuticals, Ultra Facial Defense SPF50, £41, Skinceuticals. If you splash out, dermatologist Dr. Sarah Tonks says this will treat pigmentation and UVA will help prevent more skin damage.
Asda Protect Cooling Clear Sun Mist SPF30, £3.60, Asda. Recommended by Which? to provide excellent sun protection and be easy to apply.
Babo Botanicals Pure Zinc Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF30, £17.95, Fruugo. Dr Tonks prefers this spray which does not contain the sunscreens thought to harm the environment.
Caudalie Beautifying Suncare Oil SPF30, £19.68, One Bio Shop. This also has a green ID card. It does not include the sun filters – and it is also free of silicones and alcohol.
Soltan Protect & Moisturize Spray SPF30, £4.50, Boots. Absorbs easily into the skin, provides excellent SPF and UVA resistance, and doesn’t leave much in the way of white residue.
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