"The phrase 'high SPF' sounds reassuring, it's true, but the sense of security you feel is false," Dr Barbara Sturm loses no time in telling me. The German skincare expert, who is in town to launch her Molecular Cosmetics range at Harvey Nichols – Dubai this week, adds: "SPF is a misleading and therefore dangerous term; a product with this factor only refers to protection against UVB rays, which is not quite enough."
The science behind UV radiation
The sun transmits ultraviolet radiation in three wavelengths: the creatively dubbed UVA, UVB and UVC rays. The latter does not penetrate our planet’s atmosphere, so it’s irrelevant to the case being put forth here. UVB is most responsible for sunburn which, by extension, causes malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma (what Hugh Jackman suffered from), while UVA is associated with skin ageing. However, because not everyone is aware of UVA’s role, and not all sunscreens have the wherewithal to help shield us from it, prolonged exposure not only leads to wrinkles, pigmentation and coarse skin, but can also cause skin cancer. What Sturm and other experts now know is that a product with solar protection factor (SPF) has no impact whatsoever in protecting our skin from UVA rays.
That’s not to say that you should ditch that SPF 30 offering completely; rather, as with most other things these days, you need to read the small print when buying your next sunscreen, ideally before the full force of the UAE summer is upon us. And it’s not just for those who are constantly out and about, either. “UVA can penetrate glass, so it can get you in a windowed office or while you’re driving,” explains Sturm. “It is imperative to use a sunscreen technology that offers ‘broad-spectrum’ protection.”
A broad-spectrum solution targets both UVA and UVB rays. The latter can be monitored based on the SPF count – between 30 and 50 is recommended depending on your lifestyle: think commuting to the office versus spending time at the beach. The former is trickier, and requires a bit of calculation. Step one is to look out for the UVA star rating on a product's packaging; stars range from 0 to 5. This number indicates the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB.
"In other words," states a report released by the British Association of Dermatologists, "[this is] the ratio between the level of protection afforded by the UVA protection and the UVB protection. Be aware that if you choose a low SPF, it may still have a high level of stars, not because it is providing a lot of UVA protection, but because the ratio between the UVA and UVB protection is about the same. That's why it's important to choose a high SPF as well as a high number of stars." In simpler terms, a sunscreen with SPF 30 and a UVA rating of four stars should fit the bill. Unless you spend your daylight hours out in the desert or at the beach. In that case, not only should you invest in SPF 50 and five stars, but also be very conscientious about application and reapplication.
The recommended amount of sunscreen works out to about 2 milligrams per square centimetre of your skin's surface. For optimum protection to the face, the amount needed would cover the palm of your hand. "Most people are quite good at slathering products on their faces, but tend to miss the neck and ear area, which then become prone to carcinogenic nodules," says dermatologist Anita Hiranandani. "And even if you're wearing a pair of shorts or a top with sleeves, it's best to use sunscreen all over the body, not just on the exposed bits." Apply the product 20 minutes before you step out, so it has adequate time to create a barrier shield, and reapply every two hours if you're under the sun for that long. "If you are outside a lot, it is critical, especially in a strong-sun location like the UAE, to reapply a broad-spectrum sunscreen regularly, particularly after sweating or swimming," says Sturm.
“Even certain fabrics can diminish the impact the cream has on the skin. It also depends on what time of the day you are outside – the sun is 150 times stronger at noon than in the morning or evening,” she adds.
She’s not a fan of moisturisers or make-up that claim to double up as sunscreen. “Active UV filters and active skincare ingredients sitting in a product together degrade the effectiveness of both. I would always use sunscreen separately. It is safer to apply the skincare first, wait a few minutes for absorption, and then apply make-up. This way you have the full protective effect, without the mineral oils of the cosmetics to clog your pores, and you don’t smudge your make-up,” she explains.
Even the most effective sunscreen, however, is unlikely to offer full protection under the direct glare of the sun. It needs to be complemented by clothing, sunglasses, caps and umbrellas. Dr Lanalle Dunn, founder of Jumeirah's Chiron Clinic, suggests rash-guard apparel, which blocks UV rays. She adds: "Stay away from chemically laden sunscreens – those that include parabens, oxybenzone, octinoxate and titanium dioxide."
Sunscreen pollution is another reason to avoid strong chemicals. Many activists are now pushing to ban products made up of marine-life-harming oxybenzone and octinoxate. According to Lisa Bishop, president of the Friends of Hanauma Bay organisation: "When people put these two chemicals on and they come into the ocean, the product washes off and stays floating in the water, and the corals are being killed by it." Some eco-friendly brands that come highly recommended include Colorescience, NYDG Skincare, La Roche-Posay, Dr Hauschka and Molecular Cosmetics, which carries photostable Sun Drops.
To tan or not to tan
Both types of UV radiation contribute to skin tanning, a condition actively and, research would suggest, insensibly sought out by hordes of people. A tan by any other name is damaged skin, according to the report by the British Association of Dermatologists. The skin is made up of a pigment called melanin, which gives our skin its natural colour. Exposure to sunlight causes an increase in the production of melanin that absorbs more UV radiation, causing the skin to become darker, usually temporarily. “A tan is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself,” suggests the report.
“This is not to say that one should avoid the sun completely,” cautions Dunn. “Research shows that non- smokers who avoided the sun had a life expectancy similar to smokers in the highest sun exposure group, indicating that avoidance is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking. The cardioprotective benefits of sun exposure are partly due to nitric oxide, which aids in lowering blood pressure. Nitric oxide is only released into the bloodstream with direct sunlight exposure and not with simply taking Vitamin D supplementation.”
Tanned or otherwise damaged skin can be treated by getting skin treatments such as hydrating facials, radiofrequency to tighten the skin, photodynamic therapy and fractional laser treatments. However, these should be looked upon as more prevention than cure. When it comes to avoiding sun damage, a daily threat, your first port of call should be an effective sunscreen – one that's about more than just SPF; it's a product that needs research and responsible usage. After all, if Wolverine had to battle cancer six times, there's no guarantee that any of us is immune to it.