Did you know that factor 60 sun cream is not doubly as effective as a factor 30? That you can get badly burned even under a parasol? That wet clothes allow more damaging rays through than dry? These are some of the facts emerging from a study by the Garnier Delial company and the European League Against Cancer.>
According to the study, Spain is the European country that is most aware of the risks to sun exposure. We know that the effects are accumulative, that skin cancer appears at a younger age year after year (it has grown by 40% among young men), and that it is behind premature skin ageing. Yet, more than 1/3 lay in the sun between midday and 4pm, the most dangerous time, and 36% apply protection only once. Half the population presents ‘risk behaviour’, the worst offenders being young men. The Garnier study also detects a continuation of doubts, misinformation and false beliefs.
Ultraviolet rays A, B and C
C rays ahrdly penetrate as they are filtered by the ozone layer. Bs penetrate just below the epidermis, or first layer of skin, provoking redness and burning. The As are “less energetic but penetrate more deeply,” says Chelo del Cañizo, science head of the L’Oreal cosmetics group, the world’s largest. The latter rays penetrate to the dermis, provoking immunity problems (allergies and spots), premature ageing of the skin and cancer; that’s why we turn brown as protection.
Sunburn Protection Factors (SPF, or FPS in Spanish)
The protection index is a time multiplier, an indication of the amount of time we can be exposed to the sun without burning: if you get 10 minutes and apply a factor 10, you will be stretching your resistance up to 100 minutes. This applies strictly to UVB rays as their is no worldwide standard applicable to UVAs, though if the letters UVA in a circle appear on the package, or any other clearly defined sign, it means that there is a balanced protection factor against these in the product.
The protection index ceases to mean anything after a factor 50; a factor 60 does not multiply a 30 by two. It is only a marketing gimmick, which is why the EU recommends a 50+ labelling as maximum. It also recommends that words such as ‘total screening’ be eliminated as no cream, gel or anything else protects completely. Nor, says the EU, should anything below a factor 6 be labelled as sun screen.
Skin colour, factor indicators and type of product
Sun screens in all their various presentations are sold principally as cosmetics rather than medications. However, the product is best administered according to each skin: Factor 30 to 50+ for the whitest, and for children (of any colour); 15 to 25 for skin that has some tanning and enough melanin; and 6 to 10 for the darkest skins.
The texture of the product should also be taken into account: creams, sprays, gels… The more viscous do not penetrate as well as others and can create spaces that are not covered, while the more fluid products are the best because they are more easily spread on the skin surface and penetrate more easily.
It is a great mistake to use the same bottle for the whole family, say the experts. As an example, they point out that if you have one child with darker skin than another, and you use the same protection factor, it could cancer in one and not the other. Dermatologists advise that children under 3 should never be exposed to the sun between noon and 4pm no matter how much sun screen they are using.
They also say that sun screen should be applied 30 minutes before exposure and every two hours after that, but specially after bathing and towel drying. The Garnier report says that 54% of Spaniards do that.
There is no uniform scale but experts say that about 6 coffee spoonfulls (36g or 30ml) is enough for a medium-sized adult. “Don’t be mean,” they add, “A 60 ml tube should not last more than 10 days.” The Spanish Consumers Organization calculates that this works out at approximately one 180ml bottle per family of four per day – 4 hours of sun and two applications per member. Less than that, says the organization’s website “leads to a 20% reduction in protection.·
The protection factor for clothing -the equivalent of the SPF factor for sun screen products- increases according to the space between threads and the size of these. Protection is better from darker clothing than lighter, too. The best protection is afforded by black or dark blue denim, which is not exactly the kind of clothing we go to the beach in.
A white t-shirt offers a factor 12 protection, while a black one’s is a factor 20. But be careful, if the white t-shirt gets wet, its factor goes down to 2. This can be extrapolated to any other clothing, including umbrellas: the best colour for the beach would be black, but when was the last time you saw a black umbrella at the beach?
An open thread straw hat will not offer protection from 40% of rays, whereas one made of material will stop almost 100%. But baseball caps don’t count: the hat should have a minimum of 7 or 8 centimetres all around the rim, and if it is used at an angle against the sun, all the better.
Cloudy days are dangerous
Ultraviolet rays don’t mind clouds: they reach the earth’s surface no matter how cloudy it may be. Therefore, lying under an umbrella or in the shade means nothing as the rays bounce off the sand and burn just as well. Jumping into the water is no solution either as the rays bounce happily (and best) off it. In fact, the water is the best place to get sunburned, even when a metre or less under the surface.
Sunburn and infra-red rays
Contrary to the opinion of 46% of Spaniards surveyed, it is not normal to burn when first exposing oneself to the sun, before acquiring a tan.
As for infra-red rays, the experts are beginning to conclude that these, too, have a pernicious effect on our skin. “If sun tan lotion is the biggest selling cosmetic in the world, why is there still so much skin cancer?” they ask while pointing to infra-red rays as a possible cause.