Everything you need to know about protecting your skin from the sun
Long gone are the days when sunscreen was kept in the cupboard until summer. With our increased awareness of the harmful effects of UV rays on our skin, more and more people are waking up to the importance of wearing SPF all year around. Yes, even in the often gloomy weather we experience in the UK. Figuring out what’s suitable for your skin type and navigating through the scientific jargon, however, can often be overwhelming. Not to mention the circulation of scary articles about how chemicals in sunscreen can negatively impact your skin and the environment.
So what are the best sunscreens for you? What should you wear with make-up? Why is there so much controversy revolving around sunscreen?
Below a primer on everything you need to know about sunscreen.
How can the sun’s rays harm you?
While the sun can be a wonderful thing, it can also cause you serious damage, and that’s because it emits two types of harmful ultraviolet radiation: UVB and UVA. These can damage the skin, cause premature ageing and increase your risk of skin cancer.
UVB rays are responsible for visible reactions to the skin, for example, sunburn and discolouration of the skin.
UVA accounts for 95% of the light that reaches our skin and is more of a threat than UVB as more of it reaches the Earth’s surface. UVA is present all year round and is able to penetrate glass so you’re skin is still exposed to the effects of the sun even when you are indoors. UVA is responsible for wrinkles, destroying collagen and can even lead to skin cancer.
So how does sunscreen protect you?
There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical which act in different ways to protect you from the sun’s rays.
Physical (or mineral) sunscreens contain ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide. The purpose of this type of sunscreen is to create a physical barrier between the surface of the skin and the sun. The cream is not absorbed, remaining on the skin’s surface which may result in a ‘white cast.’ They are usually more suitable for sensitive skin and give the skin immediate protection after application.
Chemical sunscreens include ingredients such as octocrylene, avobenzone and octinoxate. The formula penetrates the dermis and epidermis of the skin. The chemical compounds work within the skin to absorb the sun’s rays but must be applied minutes before sun exposure.
What is SPF, what do its different ratings stand for, and why do some labels talk about PA?
SPF stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’ and the number rating system is an indication of how long you can stay outside and be protected from UVB rays. For example, if your skin usually burns after 10 minutes of sun exposure, using an SPF 15 sunscreen would prevent burning for around 15 times longer. The PA rating factor was designed in Japan to represent how much protection you have from UVA rays.
How can sunscreen harm the environment?
In a 2016 study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a team of scientists found that oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens to protect the skin from the sun, is highly toxic to corals and marine life.
The study showed that the chemical had major toxic effects in developing coral as it increased susceptibility to bleaching and damaged DNA, which resulted in deformities of baby coral. Scientists found that the chemical entered the environment directly from swimmers wearing chemical sunscreen. As a result, in 2018 Hawaii became the first US state to pass a bill banning chemical sunscreens due to the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate being linked to harming coral reefs.
How can sunscreen harm you?
It’s not just coral reefs that are feeling the negative effects of certain sunscreen ingredients. Another controversy revolving around chemical sunscreen is that because the chemical oxybenzone can cross the skin barrier, traces end up in the body which, as some studies have shown can be linked to hormone disruption and potentially to cell damage that may lead to skin cancer.
As well as Oxybenzone, other ingredients to look out for include Octioxate and which can increase sensitivity to allergic reactions.
According to Shamir Patel, pharmacist and founder of Chemist 4 U, “new research has suggested that the ingredients Homosalate, Octocrylene, Octisalate and Avobenzone can have an adverse effect on hormones processes in the body.”
So what’s the solution?
"It's absolutely fundamental to ensure you're wearing sun cream and even more so when you're in direct heat during the warmer months,” says Patel. “Going without protection will significantly increase your risk of burning - whatever your skin type - which can put you at substantial risk of skin cancer and premature skin ageing."
Patricia Boland, dermatologist and lead product developer at Colorescience UK, agreed: “Sun protection is really non-negotiable but if you’re worried about what you’re layering on your skin, be aware of the products you choose. Chemical filter-free sunscreen and a combination of physical sunscreen in the form of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide would be best. These are un-reactive and create no skin reactions whilst giving a broad-spectrum coverage.
Can sunscreen block the benefits of sunlight?
Yes and no. According to Shamir Patel, “While sun cream use does lower vitamin D absorption, it requires a vast amount to do so. Very few people put on enough sun cream to block all UV light. It is also for this reason that I would only suggest using a lower SPF (15 for those with darker skin and around 30 SPF for paler skin) for everyday use. For sun cream to block out vitamin D altogether, you'd need a very high factor applied very regularly.”
Finally, what are the best products out there?
REN Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30
This mineral sunscreen is not only perfect for more sensitive skin, but it is brilliant to use under make-up. It is mattifying so there’s no need to worry about applying a greasy sunscreen on your face – and no excuse not to wear SPF every day! REN is also a cruelty-free and vegan brand so you can protect your skin and your conscience.
Get it here: REN Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30
Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Airsoft Face SPF 30
This is a chemical sunscreen that is also suitable to use under make-up. It has a high SPF, protects against both UVA and UVB rays and is water resistant. The formula is also very moisturising but isn’t greasy or heavy.
Get it here: Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Airsoft Face SPF 30
Delph Sun Lotion SPF 30
I love using this sun cream on my body because it absorbs very quickly and isn’t greasy at all. The formula not only protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays, but it also contains vitamin E to help prolong your tan and aloe vera to soothe your skin. It is also made in England so it isn’t tested on animals.
Get it here: Delph Sun Lotion SPF 30
Ultrasun Ultralip SPF 30
Don’t forget to protect the thin layer of skin on your lips! I love using this lip balm because it has a very high SPF. The ingredients include blackcurrant seed oil which reduces inflammation and chapping whilst simultaneously moisturising dryness.
Get it here: Ultrasun Ultralip SPF 30
Foundations with SPF
I prefer using foundation formulas that contain SPF so my skin has extra sun protection. These foundations are great for when my skin is on the drier side or a combination of dry and oily.
Dior Forever 24hr High Perfection SPF 35 PA+++
This not only provides the skin with a velvety matte finish that lasts for hours and hours, but it also shields the skin against UVA and UVB rays with SPF 35 PA+++ protection.
Get it here: Dior Forever 24hr High Perfection
Bare Minerals BarePro Performance Wear Liquid Foundation SPF 20 PA++
Medium-full coverage yet natural looking. The formula is heat, humidity, water and sweat-resistant and provides non-chemical SPF 20 sun protection.
Tarte Amazonian Clay Full Coverage Foundation SPF 15 UVA/UVB protection
This cruelty-free formula is made of Amazonian clay, meaning it’s super easy to blend and long wearing. It also contains vitamin E, a natural preservative that acts as an anti-inflammatory emollient and antioxidant, as well as other mineral pigments that soothe and soften the skin. Best of all it contains SPF 15 to protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays.
Get it here: Tarte Amazonian Clay Foundation