Sun Savvy

It's not just sun exposure on the beach that you need to protect yourself from; powerful UV rays can cause damage all year round. So save your skin by preparing and protecting, says ANJANA GOSAI

Posted: 01.03.12

Temperatures are set to soar this summer and there’s a good chance that the mercury will rise beyond a sizzling 100F. Good news for picnic fans and sun worshippers, bad news for your skin. Cases of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – is rising at an alarming rate. It affects more than 8,100 adults in Britain each year, with at least 2,000 of these cases proving fatal. But like most darker-complexioned people, most Asians are under the mistaken impression that we are impervious to sun damage and can spend as much time in the sun as our ancestors. While it’s true that those with fair skin are more at risk of skin cancer, they are usually treated for burning far quicker as the damage is more visible.
Darker skins are blessed with higher levels of epidermal melanin, which provides us with a natural skin protection factor (SPF) making us less susceptible to sunburn, however this doesn’t mean we are immune. Melanoma can strike dark-skinned people too, and when it does, it’s more deadly because it’s likely to be detected much later. ‘There’s a perception that people with darker skin don’t have to worry about skin cancer, but that's not true,’ explains dermatologist Dr Hugh Gloster. ‘Minorities do get skin cancer, and because of this false perception most cases aren’t diagnosed until they are more advanced and difficult to treat.” The frightening fact is that sometimes the damage is done years before a condition is diagnosed. “By 2035 there could be 21,000 new cases of melanoma a year as those badly sunburned in the 1980s and 1990s suffer the long-term effects” says Professor Brian Diffey of Newcastle General Hospital, who has spent years researching the implications of global warming on future skin cancer rates.
Yet, the majority of people seem oblivious to this time bomb that is potentially ticking away under their skin. While most Asian women try their best to stay out of the sun in order to remain fair and lovely, there are others who armed with their sunscreen, will fight for a poolside position in order to achieve that golden sun-kissed glow. But if you think that slapping on a high SPF is giving you enough protection - you're wrong. All sunscreens are given SPF numbers that refer to the extra time one can spend in the sun before getting sunburn.
The problem is SPF’s only refer to the skin burning UVB rays, not the ageing and melanoma-triggering UVA rays. These deep penetrating rays vary in their intensity but at present there is no universal SPF type system for testing the level of UVA protection in your sunscreen. The old school thinking was that only the skin burning UVB rays posed a threat, however, Professor Richard Marais at the Institute of Cancer Research says, ‘The alarming fact is UVA rays are 20 times more prevalent in the earth’s atmosphere and are the same strength all year round. It appears that UVA can penetrate through clothing, hats, wind shields, tinted glass and office windows potentially causing silent destruction to the skin throughout the year.’
These deeper penetrating rays cause irreversible damage to the skins structure. ‘Collagen fibres give strength and elastin gives elasticity. Over years of sun exposure, the collagen and especially the elastin become damaged and the cells in the dermis become less able to repair this damage. So the skin loses its firmness and elasticity, and becomes wrinkled. Virtually all the UV that gets down to the dermis is UVA, so this damage is definitely due to UVA’, explains cell biologist Professor Dorothy Bennett of St George’s University, London. The reason why there’s no universally accepted SPF-type system for labelling UVA protection is that scientists and beauty companies have yet to agree on a standard measure of testing the long-term harm caused by UVA light.
While Boots have attempted to solve the problem by creating their own ‘star system’, which you may be familiar with, to indicate the ratio of UVA to UVB protection offered by sunscreens, it not without its critics. Ed Young of Cancer Research UK says, ‘Because it is a ratio, the number of stars a product has is not an absolute measure’.
However, there is hope for sun worshippers who are looking for piece of mind before stepping out in the sun. Europe’s leading industry body for cosmetic and toiletry companies is working on a standard test for UVA protection and once British sunscreen makers have tested their products using this system, they will be able to apply a new logo indicating a minimum level of UVA protection provided by the product.

DO apply the product at least 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and then again just as you step outside.
DO stroke the product over clean, dry skin rather than rubbing it in, which reduces protection.
DO re-apply every two hours or more frequently if washed, rubbed or sweated off.
DON’T be stingy with the sunscreen. Use a generous amount – studies show we use only half to one third of the amount of sunscreen needed to get the SPF on the label.
DON’T use it to spend longer in the sun - this will put you at risk of sun damage that could lead to skin cancer.
DON’T store sunscreens in very hot places as extreme heat can ruin their protective chemicals.
DON’T forget to check the use by date most sunscreens have a shelf life of two to three years.

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