Expert / 15 May, 2018 / My Baba

What Is SPF? Why Do I Need It? & How Do I Stay Safe In The Sun?

As the weather warms up and the summer approaches, it is vital to remember the importance of protecting ourselves and our little ones against the sun’s rays. But before we can lecture our children on what to do, we ourselves need to be fully informed.

Ultraviolet radiation from the suns rays can cause all forms of skin cancer including basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) as well as malignant melanomas. This ultraviolet radiation consists mainly of ultraviolet rays A (UVA) and B (UVB). Exposure to UVA radiation is associated primarily with skin ageing as well as skin cancer. UVB radiation is responsible for sunburn which in turn predisposes us to skin cancer. The majority of sunscreens protect against UVB rays alone-therefore it is very important to read the label carefully before you buy any sunscreen for you or your children. Below are facts you need to know to ensure you get the best sun protection possible.

What is SPF?

We are all familiar with the term SPF but what does it actually mean? SPF stands for sun protection factor-however, in reality, it should more accurately be termed “sunburn protection factor” as it only protects against the suns’ UVB rays. The SPF rating acts as a relative measure of how long the sunscreen will protect you against UVB rays. For example, if it usually takes you 10 minutes to burn and you apply an SPF 15, then it will take you 15 times longer to burn or 250 minutes. Therefore, a higher SPF does not mean better protection from the sun- it simply means it will take you more time to burn.

What SPF rating is enough?

It is important to understand that the scale with SPF is not linear-SPF 50 is not twice as good as SPF 25. Studies have shown that SPF 30 blocks up to 96% of UVB radiation compared to SPF 50 blocking up to 98%. I find that people tend to avoid using SPF 50 due to its sticky consistency- Since SPF 50 does not add significantly more protection, I generally recommend SPF 30 for most people.

Which sunscreen should I use?

Since UVA and UVB rays both predispose to skin cancers, it is imperative that any sunscreen you use needs to protect against both.

Sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays are often termed “broad spectrum”. UVA protection is measured in stars with a UVA rating of 4 or 5 stars considered a good level of sun protection. I recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF 30 and a 4/5 star UVA rating in order to optimise your sun protection.

When and how is best to apply sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure and allowed to dry. All sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours as well as after swimming and sweating. Do NOT be falsely reassured by the “water resistant” labels on sunscreens. “Water resistant” means that the SPF protection is maintained after 40 minutes in water and “very water resistant” simply means that the SPF is maintained after 80 mins in water. Therefore sunscreen needs to be reapplied every time you get out of the water.

I try to remember a simple hack called the “teaspoon rule” when applying sunscreen to my children or myself. This easy way of remembering how much to use was first described in 2002 in a well-respected scientific journal, Archives of Dermatology.

  • Apply at least half a teaspoon to each arm, face and neck
  • Apply more than 1 teaspoon to each leg, 1 teaspoon to the front of your torso and 1 teaspoon to back of body.

What else can I do?

Sun protection can come from other sources as well. Anyone who has young children will know the difficulty in keeping them still for long enough to apply sufficient amounts of sunscreen. In this case, protective clothing can play a very important role. Look for clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating. Clothing rated UPF 50 allows only 1/50th (approximately 2%) UV transmission-These items are now widely available particularly in the form of rash guards/vests for adults and children.

Your lips are also a sensitive area that can be easily sunburned but often forgotten- Protect them using a lip balm containing SPF 30.

My top sun safety tips:

  • Keep babies and young children out of direct sunlight
  • Stay in the shade between 10am and 4pm
  • Use sun screen of at least SPF 30 with high UVA protection as well
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 -20 minutes before going out and then every 2 hours (or after swimming or sweating)
  • Make sure to remember the teaspoon rule when applying sunscreen!
  • Wear UPF clothing if possible-If not, wear a hat / long sleeved shirt
by Consultant Medical Oncologist Dr Fiona McCarthy, MB ChB MRCP(Med Onc) PG Dip (Onc) PhD

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