Sunscreen should be as much part of our summer life as chilled wine at sunset or a day on the beach, ELSA KRÜGER reminds us.
As the holidays approach, we’re get- ting ready to go out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine of summer. Mountain bikes, hiking boots, kayaks and beach chairs are all in perfect order. But what about the sunscreen?
Terrifyingly, only one blister burn in child- hood can increase your risk of skin cancer by 80% later in life. Severe sunburn can occur within 15 minutes; the damage is permanent and irreversible and it builds up with every sub- sequent exposure to sun, resulting in premature ageing and potentially melanoma, which is an aggressive and potentially life-threatening cancer of the skin. If detected and treated early, it can be cured. Its progression, however, is faster than other types of skin cancer, spread- ing to other parts of the body. Be vigilant about checking your skin for changes and consult a dermatologist annually to be checked.
South Africa has one of the highest monitored ultraviolet (UV) levels and, according to CANSA (the Cancer Association of South Africa), 20 000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed here each year, resulting in 700 deaths.
Although UVA and UVB are the main types of skin-damaging rays, recent studies have shown that infrared A rays can also penetrate the skin and cause damage. Sunlight contains UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause skin damage and cancer. But the visible dam- age is just the tip of the iceberg; beneath the skin’s surface is where the real problem lies. Excessive exposure to UVA and UVB rays, even for a short time, causes massive damage to cellular DNA (cell memory). The skin responds by becoming inflamed, signalling that the body cannot cope with the influx of UV rays. You need to protect your skin and the sun- screen you choose should be broad-spectrum; capable of shielding your skin from both UVB (which causes burning) and UVA (which causes ageing).
Dermatologists emphasise that it should be part of everyone’s daily routine. “Sunscreen is your most vital skincare product,” says Dr Ian Webster from Dermastore in Somerset West. “In South Africa, we advise applying a high-factor, broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Use products that offer superior UV protection with advanced ingredient formulations.”
After spending time in the sun, you know that your body is sending a warning when you feel extremely hot and your skin turns red and burns. If it becomes painful, with swelling and blisters, you should seek medical advice, especially if these symptoms are accompanied by nausea and lethargy. A few days later, the skin may begin to peel because of severe dehydration. Dead cell layers are shed, but that’s not the end of the story: the skin’s memory, the DNA, has been irreparably damaged. Eventually this may cause skin cancer that can be fatal. So, you think, maybe I should go for a fake tan, that must be safe. Not so, says CANSA. Sunless tanning products like pills, injections and intravenous drips contain chemicals that produce an effect similar to a lovely suntan and usually within a few hours. But the ‘tan’ fades in 7–10 days as the skin sloughs off naturally. Stay away from these artificial treatments, which can harm internal organs, and rather choose a protective sunscreen, advises CANSA. Approved products are listed on its website.
In his article ‘The Solar Spectrum and your Skin’ , Dr Webster recommends that you choose a “sunscreen that covers UVB and UVA. Use a sunscreen that incorporates a visible light blocker; this would include optically opaque filters such as non-micronised forms of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and iron oxide. These compounds scatter and reflect visible light. It is especially important to use a visible light blocker if you have a darker skin and are prone to pigmentation.” He goes on to recommend a sunscreen that also contains antioxidants and DNA repair enzymes.
Repeated exposure to environmental aggressors, such as air pollution, can deplete the body’s natural supply of protective antioxidants. Either use a sunscreen that contains an antioxidant or rub an antioxidant serum onto the skin before you apply the sunscreen. Antioxidants protect against infrared radiation that penetrates deepest into the skin. Some of the best antioxidants and antioxidant products include vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid, resveratrol, phloretin and Pycnogenol®.
Long-term exposure to UVB and UVA radiation from the sun eventually damages the DNA in the primary cells of the epidermis, which can lead to pre-cancerous lesions com- monly known as sun spots, and they in turn can lead to full-blown skin cancer. Your safest course is to use a sunscreen that not only pre- vents further damage from UVB, UVA, visible light and infrared radiation, but also contains DNA repair enzymes. The new Heliocare 360° MD AK Fluid 100+ is a good example.
Oral supplements in the form of capsules, such as Heliocare 360°, have a role to play in preventing, repairing and eliminating DNA damage. Fernblock® (patented by Heliocare) is another example. Containing a potent anti- oxidant extracted from a South American fern, it enhances protection against harmful rays and, with superior antioxidant and immunological properties, it can help prevent and repair damage to the DNA in the epidermis. It is important to remember, however, that capsules alone will not provide enough protection.
So, back to the sunscreens. There are two main types: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreen soaks into the skin and absorbs UV rays, converts them into heat and releases them from the body. Mineral sunblock contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun’s rays. This type of protection is becoming more popular as the sunblock is finer and does not leave a white residue on the skin. It is also more kind to allergy- prone skin. A new category of sunscreen is a hybrid formulation of both physical and mineral ingredients.
Chemical sunscreens have recently been prohibited in places like Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef because the chemicals are harmful to corals. Ecologically friendly biodegradable sunscreens are now being formulated with this in mind.
German mediceutical brand QMS suggests these do’s and don’ts to protect against sunburn:
- Do apply a broad-spectrum, high-SPF sunscreen with DNA protection every day. Use SPF30 or higher if you’re outdoors a lot.
- Do re-apply sunscreen every two hours and immediately after swimming.
- Do stay out of the sun between 10am and 4pm.
- Do wear protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Do get checked by a dermatologist annually.
- Don’t stay too long in the sun. No sunscreen offers 100% protection.
- Don’t skimp. Apply sunscreen liberally 30 minutes before going out into the sun.
Read the label
What does PA+ mean? PA+ is a rating system from Japan indicating how much UVA protection the product offers. The more + signs after PA, the better.
Which SPF is best? People in the southern hemisphere should opt for a high factor, recommends Dr Webster, preferably SPF30 or even SPF50. The sunscreen should also be broad-spectrum (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays) and PA++++ or PA+++++. Whether it’s chemical or mineral is a personal choice.