The Monthlies

Health & Lifestyle

Keeping your skin safe in summer

As with most things health-related the more information we get on the matter the more confusing it all seems. I’m going to try and simplify what has become a mine field of information; skin care and sun lotion.

In the early 90’s we were being told about the perils of getting too much sun and its links to skin cancer. More recently, we seem to be worried about the effects of not getting enough sun and the effect that has for our Vitamin D levels. Since then we’ve had doubts about the real risk of getting skin cancers. Just how easy or difficult is it to get skin cancer from sun damage? How will I know that I’ve damaged my skin? Do I need one of those UV lights off the adverts to tell?

Skin Cancer: The Real Risk

Cancer research UK lists solar radiation and UV emitting sun beds as two of the main risk factors for skin cancer. You can get the full list of risk factors here.

They estimate that 86% of malignant melanoma cases in the UK are linked to solar UV radiation as well as an estimated 50-70% of squamous cell carcinoma and 50-90% of basal cell carcinoma in fair skinned people. Malignant melanoma risk is more closely linked with intermittent exposure than to constant sunlight exposure! It’s interesting to know that the skin cancer risk is higher in people who sun bathe sporadically than it is in people who work every day outdoors in the sun. A history of sunburn is common in those with some types of skin cancer and it doesn’t matter if it occurred when you were a child or as an adult.

Cancer Research UK hasn’t been able to give definitive answers as to whether sun lotion realistically protects against skin cancer risk. This is partially because it’s very difficult to measure and partially because people who wear sun lotion tend to be the same ones going out to sun bathe.

The irony is that people have improperly used sun lotions. They are often used to justify sun bathing. Sadly, this misconception is probably contributing to the year-on-year rise in skin cancer (Br J Dermatol 2009).

UVA and UVB rays are both known to cause skin damage and lead to skin cancer. It’s worth knowing that the SPF rating is only able to measure the protection it gives against UVB rays. That’s because it was once thought this was the only ray that caused damage but, fairly recently, we realised UVA is also a problem.

SPF or Sun Protection Factor is a rating applied to sun lotions to tell you how strong they are in their ability to block out harmful sun rays. What most don’t realise is that the number tells you how many times longer you should be able to go in the sun before burning. So let’s say I would burn in mid-day sun in Summer in 15minutes without any sun protection. An SPF 50 would allow me to stay out 50 times longer without being burnt. This means I would last 750 minutes (or 12.5 hours) in the sun without burning. The common misconception is that the SPF 50 is stronger in its protective ability to an SPF 15. It’s not. It simply lasts longer.This is reassuring when it comes to natural SPF lotions. It’s difficult to get high SPF’s in natural lotions because the sun blocks can only do so much. But the relatively low rating doesn’t make it less strong; you just end up using more of it because you have to reapply more often.

But are sun lotions safe? 

Sadly there is limited information on the safety of the chemicals that give the SPF in sun lotions. The most commonly used chemicals are known to be skin irritants but this seems a small price to pay for preventing potential skin cancer. However, the long-term risks of sun lotion use are yet to be seen. Mostly because no one is looking into it… for now.

How do I avoid skin cancer?

The hard and fast answer to this is by avoiding direct sun exposure between 11-3pm between March and October. You should try to avoid direct sun light as much as possible during these hours, preferring shady spots and wearing clothes which cover most of the skin e.g. long sleeved shirts, skirts, trousers and wide brimmed hates. Any spots you can’t cover with clothes must have a layer of sunblock. And don’t forget to take the sunblock with you so you can reapply it regularly. Having said that it’s also important to get 10minutes of exposure to the sun without any protection to be sure to get your Vitamin D for the day.

The darker your skin tone the more melanin you create and this is your genetic protection against the sun. Skin cancers are far lower among afro-caribeean and hispanic populations and highest in the caucasian populace (CDC, 2012). In fact, melanin in afro-carribean skin filters twice as much UV radiation as does that in the epidermis in caucasians (Montagna & Carlisle, 1991).

Retinol (vitamin A from animal sources) has been linked to a decrease in some skin cancers but not all so it may be worth supplementing with this from March to October (Zhang 2014). There are also many natural plant oils that have a small SPF value to them as seen above. So it could be a good idea to add the odd dribble of carrot seed oil or raspberry seed oil to your normal moisturisers to give them a natural SPF boost.

Its not easy to find a natural sunscreen. Having worked at Neal's Yard Remedies for 7 years I know they're never quite happy with their sunscreen and it changes every year. In fact, this year they don't have one till 2018. But boy do they work!

Because Zinc Oxide is used in most natural sun screens it can be hard to find something that absorbs well and doesn't make your skin lok incredibly white. But we recommend Yaoh, Neal's Yard Remedies and Green People as our top 3. Me and Hannah are both pasty caucasian's so if you've got darker skin than us (not hard) we'd recommend trying them before you buy them. Just in case!