Sun Protection Factors, known as SPFs, have never been higher and yet neither have the cases of skin cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, since 1997, there has been an increase of 155% in skin cancers among the over 55 age group and a 63% increase in the under 55s. So if rates of skin cancer are increasing, despite SPF30 -50 suncreams being widely used, what does this tell us? It tells us that slapping on a bit of factor 50 now and again, lulls us into thinking we are protected from harmful rays. The truth is, we are not! Incorrect sunscreen application is the reason skin cancer is on the rise.

The application of sunscreen is much more important than the SPF value. It must be applied evenly every 90 to 120 minutes to prevent burning and get the true SPF protection. 2-3 tablespoons is usually about right to cover the body.

To add to the confusion, SPF numbers are very misleading. The factor number only determines the amount of protection against UVB radiation that causes sun ‘B’urn. It does not give any indication of protection against UVA radiation that causes ‘A’geing. An SPF of 15 means it will take 15 times longer to burn than it would without any suncream. This will vary depending on skin type but for the average white skinned Brit, this means you can stay in the sun for about 150 minutes without burning.

However, SPF30 does not give double the amount of protection as SPF15. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97% and SPF50 98%. The higher the SPF the more chemicals it contains and many scientists are worried about these chemicals, especially on children, once they penetrate the skin. Using an SPF50 offers only 5% extra protection but contains a much higher concentration of chemicals that we don’t yet the know the long term effects of. Oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used chemicals, has been linked to hormone changes and is the most common cause of allergic reactions.

The ideal sunscreen should contain:

  • broad spectrum antioxidants,
  • limited organic sunscreens (chemicals) with a primary concentration on UVA blocking
  • inorganic sunscreens (titanium dioxide) as the dominant component which sit on the surface of the skin and reflect UV rays.
  • good IR (infra-red) protection.

Most skin cancers are preventable and sunscreens should form part of a more comprehensive sun protection strategy. A growing body of research shows that nutrients can also improve the sun protective properties of our skin. Foods such as tomatoes, broccoli, melon, carrots, watercress, apricots, mangoes, kiwi fruit, strawberries, oranges and liver are excellent ways to complement suncreams.

Also important to remember is that we still need to make Vitamin D from the sun and that we only have UVB rays from April to October in the UK. Exposure to these rays are what synthesises Vitamin D in our skin and blood. We need some sun exposure but we need to do it safely. 15 to 20 minutes a day without sunscreen protection is about right.

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