The message is simple – too much sun spells a higher risk of skin cancer, premature ageing and an unfashionable leathered look. With all the fuss surrounding UV damage, it’s easy to overlook the fact that some sunshine is vital for the human body. Not only do warmth and light promote a feeling of well-being and stimulate blood circulation, but exposure to sunlight also stimulates production of vitamin D – essential for the immune system and healthy teeth and bones. The good news is that there’s no harm in a little sensible sun exposure.
1. Choose the right sun lotion
The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of a sunscreen is a measure of its ability to filter out dangerous UVB rays (when it comes to the sun’s rays, think UVB for Burning and UVA for Ageing). The higher the factor, the more protection you get. Sunscreens usually come in two forms – synthetic chemical formulations that work by absorbing UV light, or barrier creams that protect the skin by dispersing the sun’s rays. The minimum to use in South Africa is SPF15, says the South African Association for Health and Skincare Professionals (SAAHSP).
- Stay safe: Opt for broad-spectrum sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB rays. Used properly, cheaper brands are just as effective as expensive ones, says Cancer Research UK.
2. Don’t assume you’ve got it covered – be sun smart.
Whatever your skin colour, you should still slap on that SPF, as one in six people worldwide diagnosed with malignant melanoma are African or Asian. Although different skin types can be affected differently by the sun, skin cancer can affect any race and is more about the duration you spend in the sun than skin type alone, says the SAAHSP.
Safe under a brolly? Not really! Sitting in the shade gives the equivalent of SPF9, so you can still burn. Finally, the radiation from sun beds is far higher than you get from exposure to the sun, so use them at your peril.
- Stay safe: Don’t get caught out on a cloudy day. Check the UV index in your area at www.weathersa.co.za. Click on your province to find the area closest to you, as not all South African towns have an office to monitor their levels.
3. Shield your face
A tan only lasts for summer, but wrinkles last a lifetime. Don’t rely on cosmetics containing sunscreens. In southern Africa, the ‘safe sun time’, which is the amount of time that you can spend outdoors unprotected without damaging the skin in the middle of summer, is 10 minutes. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your neck and ears. Wear a wide-brimmed hat – a baseball cap won’t do – to protect your hair as well as your face.
- Stay safe: Use a dedicated sunscreen every day instead of a moisturiser. Opt for one that’s been created especially for the face – they’re generally less greasy and are easier to apply under make-up. It helps to apply it half an hour before you do your make-up.
4. Keep everything protected
Most of us only use about a third of the amount of lotion we need to get the protection levels shown on the bottle. Experts say that an average 300ml bottle should last you – not the whole family – less than three days.
Use a blob about the size of a R5 coin on each arm, double that on each leg, your back and chest. Sunscreen gets rubbed or sweated away, so top it up every one to two hours and reapply after swimming, even if it’s waterproof. Wear clothing such as hats, shirts and pants made from natural fibres, which give much better protection than polyester or nylon, says the SAAHSP.
- Stay safe: Be vigilant about ankles, feet, lips and backs of hands. Your hair and scalp need protection too, so comb through a layer of conditioner, or use a proper hair sunscreen, and wear a hat.
- Tip: Don’t rub sunscreen into your skin aggressively as you can reduce its efficiency by up to 25%. Apply gently.
5. Always wear shades
Your eyes are also susceptible to UV damage and research suggests that people exposed to high levels of sunlight are four times more likely to develop cataracts – so it’s vital that you don’t forget your sunglasses.
The best sunglasses block out 100% of UVA and UVB rays and protect the delicate skin around the eyes from wrinkles, while wrap-around styles prevent the sun from penetrating the sides (great for sport). Have your prescription glasses made up with a tint, but one that’s not too dark for driving or reading.
- Stay safe: Sunglasses needn’t be expensive, but they should have passed the European standard for UV protection.
- Tip: The higher the filter, the darker the lens, so grade 1 is fine in little sun and grade 4 on hotter, brighter days.
6. Take it easy
Whether you’re abroad or in the garden, always start out with a high-protection sun cream – and make sure you cover up when the sun’s at its hottest. Don’t be tempted to have a last-day fry. You’ll be throwing away all your hard work and sunburn can double your risk of skin cancer. If you want to be browner, it’s easier – and much safer and less painful – to fake it.
- Stay safe: Don’t use sunscreens as a means of staying in the sun for longer. And beware of products claiming ‘total protection’ and ‘sun blockers’, because no sunscreen products can provide full protection against all UV radiation. Take a siesta and avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm when it’s at its hottest and UVB is at its strongest.