Now that summer is upon us (no honest – it REALLY is here in the UK, the rain is getting warmer !!) it’s seems a good time to remind ourselves about safe tanning. If you’re unfortunate like I am and one of those people who seem to burn if you’re out for more than half an hour or so in the sun, then hopefully, you’ll find this guide a useful reminder of how to enjoy the sun safely.
Specifically, who needs to take care, what the risks are, sun protection factors and the all important what to do when things go wrong………..
So pay attention girls – here comes the “sciencey bit” !!! Also – its a bit of a long one today – so you might want to settle in with a nice cuppa and a biscuit (or two)
What is a Tan ?
Did you know that a tan is actually a sign the skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself ? You’d be surprised to know that if you did, you’re in good company, nearly two thirds of the ladies in my Facebook group thought the exact opposite !!! Mist commonly quoting “You look a lot healthier with a tan – it gives you a healthy glow and makes you feel better about yourself”. The truth is a little different though !!! The dark pigment that gives the skin its natural colour is a substance called melanin which is manufactured in the skin by pigment cells called melanocytes. After our skin has been exposed to sunlight the melanocytes produce more melanin in attempt to absorb further UV radiation, and so the skin becomes darker.
Why should you be careful?
Summer’s great isn’t it ? Holidays, days out at the beach, picnics and barbecues. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to spend summer indoors !!! And, some sunshine, below sunburn level, can be good for us. It helps the body to create vitamin D and giving many of us a feeling of general wellbeing as we enjoy outdoor summer activities. The problem is of course when we over do our exposure which can lead to a range of skin problems. Everyone is aware of the most serious of problems (the dreaded C word) of course, but there are a whole range of other issues including sunburn, photosensitive rashes and prickly heat. Over exposure can also worsen existing conditions like rosacea.
As I mentioned before, a number of my friends associate a tan with looking healthy. But, the truth is that a tan is actually a sign our skin has been harmed by UV radiation and is trying to defend itself against further damage. This kind of damage can in turn increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Its estimated that over 100,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed annually in the UK, and while the disease can also occur on parts of the body not exposed to sunlight, extensive sun exposure is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of cases. In more than four out of five these cases skin cancer is a preventable disease.
UVA and UVB radiation (Deep breath, its another sciencey bit)
UV radiation from the sun is transmitted in three forms, which are differentiated by their wavelengths. Their names are UVA, UVB and UVC. Fortunately, because UVC doesn’t penetrate the atmosphere, we only really need to protect against UVA and UVB. UVA irradiation is most commonly associated with skin ageing. This is because it affects the elastin in the skin, leading to wrinkles, leathery skin and brown pigmentation. UVA is capable of penetrating window glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB. UVA protection in a sunscreen will help defend the skin against photo ageing. and potentially skin cancer.
UVB on the other hand, is mostly responsible for sunburn and has strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma risk (types of skin cancer). A sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) will help block UVB rays and prevent the skin from burning, and by association, any damage that can lead to skin cancer.
So, tell me about SPF – what’s that about ?
Sunscreens here in the UK are labelled with an ‘SPF’ rating, which stands for ‘sun protection factor’ and is usually followed by a number. SPF is a measure of the level of protection against UVB, not the protection against UVA. Because of this, you’ll sometimes hear people refer to it as the “Sun burn protection factor”. SPFs are rated on a scale of 2-50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with ratings between 2 to 14 forming the least protected end of the spectrum and ratings of 50+ offering the strongest forms of UVB protection. Most dermatologists I spoke to when I was researching this article recommended going for an SPF of at least 30, with some going as high as 50 if you have fair skin.
As well as the SPF number, Most sunscreens I saw while browsing in Boots had the following table on them. You should also check that your chosen sun protection is photostable. ‘Photostability’ means that the filters do not break down in the sun.
||6 to 14 (i.e. SPF 6 and 10)
||15 to 29 (i.e. SPF 15, 20 and 25)
||30 to 50 (i.e. SPF 30 and 50)
|Very high protection
||50 + (i.e. SPF 50+)
I see some foundation and moisturisers now have SPF ratings – is that the same ?
SPF used in moisturisers are tested the same way as sunscreens, so an SPF 15 moisturiser should provide an SPF of 15. However, these formulas are less likely to be rub-resistant and water resistant, and most importantly are likely to be applied a lot more thinly than sunscreen. They therefore are unlikely to offer the same level of protection.
A moisturiser with an SPF will help protect you against small amounts of UV exposure, such as when you walk to the car or pop outside to hang out the washing, but sunscreen is better suited for longer, more deliberate UV exposure, such as spending your lunch hour outside.
It is also worth noting that moisturisers containing an SPF may not contain any UVA protection and as a result will not protect against UV ageing.
How should I apply sunscreen?
Think its easy ? Surprisingly not !!! a number of studies have found that people apply less than half of the amount required to provide the level of protection indicated on the packaging. While you might guess that tricky to reach areas such as the back would be missed, most people also miss the sides of their neck, temples and even ears !!! Like the Australian motto says “Slip, Slap, Slop” says – don’t be shy, apply it generously !!!!
Nowadays there is a vast range of different product types available, including lotions, mousses, sprays and gels. Because of this variation, it is not possible to give a set amount that you should apply that is the same for all products. Individual manufacturers can provide further details specific to the application of their particular sunscreens. When using lotions, as the bare minimum you should to apply at least six full teaspoons (approximately 36 grams) to cover the body of an average adult, which is more than half a teaspoon of sunscreen to each arm and the face/neck (including ears), and just over one teaspoon to each leg, front of body and back of body. This is the amount used when products are tested for their SPF (it equates to 2 mg /cm²). Applying less will reduce the protection to a higher degree than is proportionate – for example, only applying half the required amount can actually reduce the protection by as much as two-thirds. The overall message in terms of sunscreen use is “more is better.” It is also easy to forget to reapply sunscreen as often as necessary. Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun to allow it to dry, and then again shortly after heading outdoors to cover any missed patches and to make sure you’re wearing a sufficient layer. Reapply it at least every 2 hours, and immediately after swimming, perspiring and towel drying or if it has rubbed off.
Any article about tanning wouldn’t be complete without talking a little about the different types of skin. Dermatologists generally divide skin types into six categories, from phototype 1 – fair skin that burns very easily in the sun and does not tan, to phototype 6, which is darker black skin that does not burn easily. People with a darker complexion have more natural sun protection, and fair-skinned individuals are more susceptible to sun burn, skin cancer and photodamage. See our leaflet on ‘Skindex’ for more information.
The key character difference between black and white skin is that of melanin packaging and processing. Naturally occurring biological agents in the skin absorb a proportion of UV irradiation, melanin being one of these. Melanin is a pigment molecule in the skin and is packaged slightly differently in people of different ethnic backgrounds. The type of melanin of all skin colours is eumelanin except for those with red hair and freckles, who have phaeomelanin, which is less well able to cope with UV irradiation.
If you tan very easily, as with black or Asian skin (e.g. types 5 and 6) you need less ultraviolet damage to initiate the tanning process. You do not need a sunscreen to stop skin cancer and skin ageing to the same extent as a fair skinned person, but sunscreen will still be needed during intense or prolonged exposure.
If you are of Mediterranean type skin (e.g. Type 4), you also tan easily, but you will need more ultraviolet to tan than lighter skins. You can still suffer from UV damage and although you are less likely to develop melanoma than skin types 1 to 3, your skin will age with sun exposure.
If you are very fair and cannot tan at all (e.g. Type 1), you will not tan with or without a sunscreen, but you will damage your skin badly if exposed without protection. You need to take particular care to regularly apply lots of high SPF sunscreen (i.e. 30 or above) with high UVA protection too. It is also important to remember to wear proectedtive clothing, such as long t-shirts, and spend time in the shade during the hottest parts of the day.
Recommendations regarding sun protection (e.g. clothing, shade and sunscreen) should be used in conjunction with the skin type guide. For example, the use of clothing and sunscreen applies to skin types I and II at all times in the sun, and to skin types V and VI during periods of prolonged or intense sun exposure. Darker skin types do not need to routinely use sunscreens.
Top sun safety tips
So, that’s it !! Tanning in a nutshell – so lets finish with a few tips to help you get a safe tan this summer.
- Protect the skin with clothing, including a hat, t-shirt, sunglasses and sunscreen.
- Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm when it’s sunny
- Use a ‘high protection’ sunscreen of at least SPF 30 which also has high UVA protection, and make sure you apply it generously and frequently when in the sun.
- The British Association of Dermatologists recommends that you tell your doctor about any changes to a mole – if your GP is concerned about your skin, make sure you see a Consultant Dermatologist (on the GMC register of specialists), the most expert person to diagnose a skin cancer. Your GP can refer you via the NHS.