How to protect your skin in the sun

Dr Anjali Mahto, one of the UK’s leading consultant dermatologists and author of The Skincare Bible, gives her advice on how to protect your skin in the sun and prevent skin cancer and premature skin ageing.

Woman looking at the sun with sunglasses

As the days get longer and the weather starts to warm up we inevitably start thinking about time outside, barbecues in the garden and sunny holidays.  Connecting with nature and being outdoors has huge benefits for our mental health and vitamin D levels but also brings with it the awareness and responsibility to enjoy the sun safely.

Sunlight is made up of multiple wavelengths of light, which include visible light, ultraviolet (UV) light and infrared radiation. UV light, mainly UVA and UVB penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and are known to have numerous well-documented effects on our skin. UVB rays, with a shorter wavelength than UVA, mostly penetrate the upper layers of the skin and are primarily responsible for skin reddening and sunburn. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and can contribute to premature skin ageing.

Protecting the skin from excessive sunlight has a dual purpose. From a medical standpoint, adequate sun protection will lower your risk of developing skin cancer, some of which can be fatal. If this isn’t enough to convince you, then purely from an aesthetic point of view, sun protection will also slow down the rate of skin ageing.

Adopting healthy behaviours in the sun

Rising rates of skin cancer have been attributed to an increased accessibility of foreign travel and budget holidays in the sun. The desire to be tanned and tanning bed use has added to the problem.  Five or more sunburns before the age of 18 years can double your lifetime risk of developing melanoma, a serious skin cancer. One of the most preventable ways of reducing this risk is to adopt healthy behaviours in the sun. If your skin is turning red or burning, it is a sign of damage to the DNA in your skin cells.

People at high risk of developing skin cancer include those with fair skin, multiple sunburns, artificial tanning bed use, family history, numerous atypical moles, or medical conditions causing a weakened immune system.

In addition to seeking the shade, covering up with protective clothing, hats and sunglasses, using a regular sunscreen has an important role to play in sun protection. When choosing an appropriate sunscreen, you should be looking for a “broad-spectrum” product, which offers protection against both UVB and UVA radiation. For most people, ideally look for a minimum SPF 30 with at least a four star UVA rating.

Remember to re-apply SPF

Sunscreen should be re-applied every 90 minutes or so to get the stated factor on the bottle. It should also be re-applied after swimming or excessive sweating. It needs to be used on all areas not protected by clothing. Many of us are also guilty of under-application of product and as a rough rule of thumb, aim for about a teaspoon per body area: one teaspoon for your face and neck, one for each arm, one for each leg, one for your chest and abdomen, and one for your back.

Remember to apply sunscreen even on cloudy days as it is still possible to get sunburnt. Ultraviolet light can penetrate cloud cover and often some of the worst sunburn occurs when people get caught out. 

Using the right products

Sunlight and its associated radiation is responsible for about 80% of skin ageing – think fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone and pigmentation – all the features we commonly associate with older skin. Scientific research on sets of identical twins confirms that the twin with more sun exposure shows features of skin ageing much earlier. As twins are genetically identical, we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the differences are due to an environmental factor such as the sun.

If skin ageing is a concern, then sunscreen should be worn on a daily basis. It is the single most important skincare product to prevent premature skin ageing.  Ideally look for a broad-spectrum agent with a minimum of SPF 30.

Many people choose to wear beauty products with SPF (e.g. a moisturiser or foundation) rather than a separate sunscreen. These products are usually not as effective as a sunscreen. This is partly because SPF is only a marker of UVB protection and may not be offering broad-spectrum coverage. Studies also show that we tend not to use enough quantity of beauty product versus a sunscreen so the level of protection is inadequate.

Sun protection in all its forms from avoidance during peak daylight hours to wearing adequate sun protection whilst out and about has a number of health benefits to us at an individual and population level.  Sunscreen can play an important role in preventative health care and aesthetics if they are a concern.

The Skincare Bible by Dr. Anjali Mahto is out now.


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