Coming into Summer, we’ll be spending a lot more time outdoors enjoying the warmer weather. But being outdoors means we’ll have exposure to the sun. The sun causes the most damage to our skin out of all of the elements, which is why we are told to wear sunscreen. But are you using sunscreen correctly?
As a kid in Australia, it was drilled into us from an early age how and why we need to be “sun smart”. This is because 80% of our population live in coastal areas, and most of us would spend our Summers on the beaches, soaking up the sunshine.
Even with all of our sun-smart knowledge, though, Australia tops the list for the highest melanoma rate in the world - followed by New Zealand. This is due largely to the fact that both countries were founded and inhabited by people from the Northern Hemisphere, so their pale skin was not intended for the harsher climate in the Southern Hemisphere.
That's not to say that people with darker skin are impervious to skin cancers. Nobody, not even our brothers and sisters with the darkest of pigmented skin is exempt from skin cancer.
Not All Sun Exposure is Bad.
While we’ve always been told to slather on sunscreen, wear a hat, and cover our bodies in clothing, it’s actually not all that detrimental to be out in the sunshine. Not if you're being sun-smart, anyway.
Our planet needs the sun to exist. Without it, earth would just be a lifeless ball, floating through space. Warmth, the weather patterns, and energy from the sun are all imperative to the existence of life on earth.
It isn’t just the planet that relies on the sun to exist, either. Humans also need to have exposure to the sun. Not to the point of getting burnt, but we need it to maintain our health.
Take vitamin D, for example. If we have too little exposure to the sun, we can become deficient in vitamin D.
Why is Vitamin D Important?
Vitamin D is a critical and essential nutrient that:
- Helps our bodies to absorb calcium;
- Regulates our bodies phosphate absorption;
- Helps strengthen our immune system;
- Keeps our mood elevated;
- Strengthens our muscles and bones - reducing risk of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.
People who work indoors; live in cities where buildings block the sunlight; and live in countries where the sun is not as visible some parts of the year - such as parts of the far Northern Hemisphere - are more prone to depression due to vitamin D deficiencies.
The general amount of sun exposure health professionals recommend that humans get is at least 30 minutes a day, and at least three times a week to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. But this varies depending on things such as your specific skin type, lifestyle, where you live, and what season it is.
People in Norway, for example, cannot make vitamin D between October and March due to the Winter season. People in Boston, USA also struggle between November and February. But it’s estimated that 42% of all Americans have a deficiency in vitamin D, even those living in sunnier states.
Solariums and sunbeds have been a popular way to supplement vitamin D deficiency, but they have been banned in some countries, or banned to those under the age of 18. This is because of the safety hazard they impose. When a person receives a large dose of UV rays in a small amount of time - such as when using a sunbed - it increases the likelihood of developing skin cancer.
Interestingly, people with darker, more tannable skin are actually more prone to vitamin D deficiency than their light-skinned siblings. This is because they already naturally possess a higher amount of melanin (skin pigment), which makes their bodies less efficient at producing it. So it’s important that even darker-skinned people get their daily dose of vitamin D.
Rays of Sunshine.
Let’s quickly go over the different kinds of rays that emit from the sun.
Visible Light: These are the rays we can see with our naked eye, making up around 50% of the overall rays. Part of the visible rays is called HEVIS/HEVL (high energy visible light),which are, you guessed it, high energy sun rays.
Ultraviolet (UV) Light: These make up around 5% of the sun’s rays. There are UVA rays, which are less intense than UVB rays, but there are 30 to 50 times more of UVA than UVB rays. UVA light is also present at all times during the day, whereas UVB varies throughout the day - being at its peak at noon. There is also UVC light - but it cannot make it through the earth’s atmosphere.
Infrared Light: the other 45% of rays are Infrared A & B light rays.
HEVIS, UVA and UVB rays can all cause skin stress or cancers. I’ll go into more detail about these further down.
Who Can Get Skin Cancer.
As stated previously, people with light skin are more prone to skin cancers. This is not because the sun picks on people who are pale. The fact is, it isn’t actually the sunshine that causes sunburn. It’s the UV rays that are emitted from the sun, no matter the weather, which is why you can still get burnt on a cloudy day.
Furthermore, people with darker skin have more melanin, which protects them from burning. This is why it takes a darker skinned person longer to tan, or burn, and also get their daily dose of vitamin D.
If you’ve ever had a skin cancer screening, you may have been asked whether you have ever had severe sunburn before you turned 18. This is because children who have had severe sunburn are more prone to developing skin cancers later in life. So if you have children, please remember to cover their skin with sunscreen and clothing.
What we can take away from this is, any level of sunburn can develop into cancerous cells, no matter your complexion.
Types of Skin Cancers.
There are three kinds of skin cancers that are caused by sun exposure:
Basal cell carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma
95% of skin cancers are basal or squamous, and are highly treatable. Melanoma, on the other hand, develops in the melanocytes (skin pigment cells) and can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated. Over 7000 people in the US die from melanoma each year, and this number is expected to rise.
More Than Just Skin Cancer.
Another reason why we need to be diligent when we are outside is, the sun can cause damage to our skin on a cellular level. Sunburn, premature aging, hyperpigmentation and sun allergies are all symptoms of sun damage. Out of the different light rays that come from the sun, three of them cause damage to our skin.
UVA rays are what cause sunburn and surface conditions, such as pigmentation. UVB rays, on the other hand, can penetrate much deeper into the skin, infecting the cells with diseases. These are the rays that cause skin cancers.
HEVIS rays, like UVB rays, can also penetrate deeper into the skin. This is where they can cause oxidative stress, and generate free radicals, which ultimately cause damage to the cells. Hello premature aging!
Antioxidants can aid in neutralizing potentially harmful oxidative molecules before they have a chance to do any harm. However, prevention through sun-safe practices is always preferable for your skin’s health.
Ways to Prevent Sun Damage.
As an adult, I have watched many people apply sunscreen to themselves, and their children. I find it surprising that the rules I learnt growing up were not taught everywhere else. But I forget that not every city or town is big on swimming, or has access to the beach.
But it is important, no matter where you’re from. We’ve all vacationed at the beach before, and all it takes is for one bad sunburn to trigger potential skin cancers.
So What Are The “Rules” to Staying Sun-Smart?
Wear a Hat. Approximately 30% of melanomas are found on the head and neck. Protect your head with a wide-brimmed hat whenever possible.
Wear Sunglasses. We can get growths on our eyeballs, called pinguecula, if we overexpose them to the sun. They are not cancerous, but they can be unsightly. Getting some UV400 sunglasses will protect your eyes from UVA and UVB rays.
Wear Protective Clothing. Wearing collared shirts is a great way to keep the rays off your neck. Even if you’re swimming, you could wear a rash guard to prevent sunburn. Children should especially wear one to protect their skin from burning.
Avoid Hottest Times. Between 10am and 4pm the sun's rays are at their peak in strength. So if you can avoid being out in the sun at those times, try and do so.
Wear Sunscreen. This one is a no-brainer. Most of us will wear sunscreen at the very least when we go out in the sun. But the problem is not in getting people to wear sunscreen. It’s getting people to wear it properly.
Proper Sunscreen Application.
You may be surprised to know that you may not be using sunscreen properly.
How to use sunscreen the most effectively:
- Apply 30 minutes before you swim or set off outside;
- Apply it liberally:
- Face - ½ a teaspoon
- Body - a shot glass full
- Reapply every 2 hours - or even more often if you’re swimming;
- SPF 15 or higher is ok for people with a darker complexion, but SPF 30+ is preferred, and best, especially for children and paler skin.
Types of Sunscreens.
There are two types of sunscreen: physical or chemical.
Physical sunscreens are thicker and whiter in consistency. They are made from zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are designed to sit on the skin and reflect UV light, and absorb UV radiation.
Physical sunscreens can be less irritating for the skin, so this could be a better option for sensitive skin. But they are generally not as effective as chemical sunscreens, and may clog oily skin up. So it isn’t the best option for everyone.
Chemical sunscreens are the most common sunscreens. They contain active sun filters that absorb UV light to prevent it from absorbing into your skin. Formulations are usually lightweight and very effective, due to their scientific properties.
The issue with chemical sunscreens is that they can irritate your skin. Older formulations have also caused some concern over the free radical damage they have potentially caused. Another issue is, some ingredients found in chemical formulations are said to cause reef damage. But these days you can find good quality, reef-friendly chemical sunscreens that contain antioxidants and other formulas that help protect your skin and the coral reefs.
When choosing a sunscreen, always make sure it is “broad spectrum”. This means it protects from all UV light. There are many formulations of sunscreens out on the market today. But which one works best?
Creams/Lotions - the most common type, and the most preferable, in my opinion. Whether it be a physical or chemical formulation, the cream consistency will ensure you give your skin the best coverage. For oily skin, look for non-comedogenic creams to avoid clogged pores.
Gels - if you have oily skin, this could be a good option for you, although a cream will always be better for longer lasting sun protection. You may also need to apply this more liberally to get the same level of coverage as a cream.
Sprays - studies have shown that people who use spray sunscreen only use ¼ of the recommended amount. If possible, avoid using sprays - especially on children. But if you do use them, spray liberally onto your hands first, and then apply to your face and body.
Sticks - these are usually thicker in consistency than other forms of sunscreens. They work great for smaller areas, like the face and shoulders, and usually stay on much better than any other kind of sunscreen. You’ll usually find they contain zinc.
Adding an SPF in Your Regime.
It’s important to wear an SPF, especially if you’re going to be outside. There are a few options when it comes to adding one to your skincare regime. Here are some options:
Physical sunscreen: because these contain particles that reflect light, it’s important to add these to your regime as a last step. Adding a moisturizer on top will only hinder the sunscreen’s effectiveness.
Chemical sunscreen: apply this before your moisturizer. Chemical sunscreens need to absorb into the skin. If you moisturize first, it will act as a barrier and stop the sunscreen from absorbing.
Moisturizer with SPF: this is a popular option for those who don’t want another stp in their regime. It also takes the guesswork out of when you should apply a sunscreen, as it’s always going to be the final step in your regime.
SPF Additive: Earthwise Beauty has formulated an amazing product, Farizads Veil Sun Reflector. It's non-nano uncoated zinc oxide in powder form, so you can mix it in with your favorite moisturizer. It works by reflecting both UVA & UVB rays, and the uncoated non-nano particles are larger, meaning they won't absorb into the skin like coated nano particles can.
If you're not using an SPF in your daily regime, you should consider starting now. It can be as simple as adding one in to your regime, or you can replace your moisturizer for one with SPF.
Our pick is Honua Skincare's Malu Day Cream SPF 30. It contains a broad spectrum zinc with natural skin protectants sourced locally in Hawaii. Not only that, but it is 100% reef-friendly, which something we love to see!
All of the brands Fait avec Coeur promote are vegan and cruelty-free, sustainably and ethically sourced and made, and are manufactured using low-waste or plastic-free packaging.
Written by Emma Masotti. Emma is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.