As melanoma is the biggest cancer killer, Arlene Harris says it makes sense to wise up when it comes to sunscreens
WE’VE just enjoyed our first real taste of summer — a prolonged period of sunshine, blue skies and the obligatory splash in a paddling pool followed by a barbequed feast.
But there will undoubtedly be scores of people up and down the country with sunburned faces, red, painful looking torsos and of course the ubiquitous farmers tan — because despite melanoma being the biggest cancer killer, many are still wary of sun cream.
Perhaps we don’t think the sun is ‘hot enough’ in Ireland to do any damage, or maybe we simply lose the run of ourselves and after a quick slather at the beginning of the day, completely forget to re-apply.
According to a new report from consumer advocate Which?, sun-worshippers of the lazier kind who thought they had struck gold with the introduction of the ‘once-a-day’ sunscreen will be disappointed as the UK Consumer Association group have found that these creams do not offer sufficient protection against the harmful rays of the sun.
Having tested the claims of leading high-street brands of ‘once-a-day’ sunscreens, Which testers saw an average decrease in SPF protection of 74% after six to eight hours.
This meant that the once-a-day product claiming a SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 would drop to a factor 8 over the course of the day. The company also tested a wide selection of standard sunscreens to see whether or not they all met the SPF30 claim and all but one (Hawaiian Tropic) passed the test.
The British Association of Dermatologists’ recommend using ‘high protection’, broad spectrum sunscreens (offering protection against UV (ultra violet) A and B), with an SPF of at least 30 and high UVA protection, in addition to protective clothing and shade.
Clare O’Connor, sun expert for Boots Ireland, says it is important to check the label before buying sunscreen to ensure it has the protection you require.
“The most important thing to look for in sun protection is the right SPF level for your skin type,” she advises. “Secondly you need to look for the level of UVA protection as SPF is only half of the story — so look for products with a five star UVA rating.
“The SPF on the front of the pack indicates the level of protection the product provides and whatever the format, this doesn’t change.
“Then it really is down to consumer preference whether they prefer a lotion or a spray to apply sun protection.”
The sun care expert also says that sunscreen doesn’t have to be expensive and choosing a product with extra moisture will benefit skin which has been exposed to the sun.
“A higher price doesn’t necessarily indicate better protection,” she says. “However, sunscreens should only be bought from a reputable source so the product can be traced back to the supplier.”
Ms O’Connor also points out that, while
you may think all sun cream has moisturising properties, a sun lotion with added moisturisation can provide better protection for your skin.
“This is because the addition of a long-lasting moisturiser helps protect the skin’s outer barrier which in turn protects its deeper layers, preventing the long-term signs of damage such as wrinkles and brown spots.”
But wrinkles may the least of your worries as the most recent figures from the National Cancer Registry show that in 2013 there were 984 cases of melanoma 9,791 cases of non-melanoma skin cancer.
Kevin O’Hagan, cancer prevention manager at the Irish Cancer Society, explains exactly how sunscreen helps to protect against melanoma.
“Whether used as a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product, sunscreen absorbs or reflects some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and helps protect against sunburn,” he says.
“It acts like a very thin bulletproof vest, stopping the UV rays before they can reach the skin and cause damage, and it contains organic sunscreen particles which absorb UV and inorganic pigments that absorb, scatter and reflect UV.
“To provide a high level of protection, a sunscreen product must have adequate quantities of these protective agents and it must equally distribute over the skin. Products with a higher SPF allow fewer of the UV rays that produce sunburn to strike the skin.”
Dr Mark Murphy, chairperson of the Irish Association of GPs, says there is no real evidence to suggest that the more money spent on sunscreen, the better the protection.
“Despite advertising claims, there doesn’t seem to be much proof that expensive sunscreen is better than cheaper varieties,” he says.
“Basically if it has been passed and approved by the relevant bodies then they should all offer the protection level as stated on the bottle. The only difference may be if some are scented or cause allergies so it really is down to individual preference and I would advise people to check for sensitivity to certain products by trying out on a small patch of skin before using all over in the sun.”
Finbar McCarthy, group buying director at Aldi said, “Providing the public with great quality products at exceptional prices is at the core of our business, and our Lacura range of sun cream offers protection against the sun, at a fraction of the price.”
But makers of one of the more expensive brands on the market, Eucerin, say their product has an added bonus which reflects in the higher price.
“Even if you use the highest SPF possible, there is no such thing as 100% protection for your skin against UV rays,” says a spokeswoman.
“That is why Eucerin Sun has an added layer of protection: Biological Cell Protection.
“Using antioxidants from different plant extracts, the formulations support the skin’s own protection system against UV rays and help protect skin cells against sun-induced damage caused by free radicals,” added the spokesperson.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and shows the degree of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB only. It is rated on a scale from 2 to 50+.
The higher the factor, the greater the level of protection against UVB.
UVA Star ratings range from 0-5 and indicate the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVA, compared with the level of protection it provides against UVB.
Sunscreens with a low SPF can still have a high number of stars, not because they are offering high UVA protection, but because the ratio between UVA and UVB protection is the same as offered in sunscreens with higher SPF. This is why it is very important to choose a sunscreen with a high SPF as well as high UVA protection (ideally 4 or 5 stars).
The UVA protection offered in a sunscreen should be at least one third of the SPF. Sunscreen products meeting this requirement are eligible to display a UVA logo, with the letters UVA enclosed within a circle.
An ‘open jar’ symbol on the container indicates the period of time after the product is first opened, that it is safe to use. This is usually specified in months or years and if storage instructions are followed, the product should remain effective during this period.
The Health Products Regulatory Authority recommends checking the label of the sunscreen for a European address – if a product has been imported from outside the EU, it may not meet European safety assessment requirements.
The SunSmart Code
For best protection, follow the Irish Cancer Society’s SunSmart code.
SEEK SHADE: When UV rays are at their strongest generally between 11am and 3pm.
COVER UP: By wearing a shirt with a collar and long shorts. Also wear a hat that gives shade to your face, neck and ears.
WEAR WRAPAROUND SUNGLASSES: make sure they give UV protection.
SLOP ON SUNSCREEN: Use sunscreen with SPF 15 (SPF30 for children) or higher and UVA protection 20 minutes before going outside and re-apply every two hours — more often if swimming or perspiring.
CHECK the UV index – www.cancer.ie/uvindex
Keep babies under six months out of the sun.
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