We live in a country where we do not think much about the sun shining on our faces. It is simply there, providing light and heat to us, 365 days a year.
However, as we become more conscious of the effects of UV rays on our skin and health, we have learnt to be more careful with sun exposure. Many women now carry an umbrella when they walk in the sun, wear hats while gardening, and put on sunscreen lotion when they go out of the house.
Choosing the right sunscreen can be confusing. The shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets are often filled with rows and rows of sunscreen products with dizzying variations of names, numbers and claims.
What is the right sunscreen for you, and how much does it help you? What else do you need besides sunscreen to protect yourself? I hope to answer some of these questions below.
Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) rays, which is part of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted from the sun. You cannot actually see UV rays with the naked eye, as its wavelengths are shorter than that of visible light.
There are three ranges of UV rays within this spectrum: UVA, UVB, and UVC. The first two wave ranges, UVA and UVB, are the ones that penetrate the atmosphere and reach our skin.
UVA rays are long-wave rays that penetrate deeply into the skin, while UVB are short-wave rays that only enter the skin's superficial epidermal layers.
UV rays do have beneficial effects because they help the body to make vitamin D, which is important for strong bones and teeth. Sunlight is the only known natural source of vitamin D, so we cannot shun the sun completely.
However, too much exposure to UVA and UVB rays can lead to harm. UVA is known to damage the DNA in skin cells, which could contribute to skin cancer and suppression of the immune system. UVA also causes skin wrinkling, premature ageing, age spots, and loss of tone and elasticity.
UVB is the main cause of skin reddening and sunburns when you are exposed to sun. UVB is also a culprit in skin cancers.
Together, overexposure to UVA and UVB can significantly increase your risk of developing different types of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
How does it work?
How does sunscreen work?
Technically, sunscreen is any substance or material that protects the skin from UV rays. It does not necessarily have to be in the form of skin lotion, cream, gel or spray; it can also be a salve or stick that is applied to the lips, nose or eyelids; sunglasses; sun-protection clothing; or a film screen that we affix to our house or car windows.
In this article, we will talk about the effectiveness of sunscreen skin products, because these products offer the most protection for parts of our bodies that are not covered by clothing or coverings.
The amount of protection provided by a sunscreen is indicated by the sun-protection factor, or SPF. You will usually see sunscreen lotions with numbers like SPF 15, 30, or 50. The SPF is calculated based on how long it takes for skin that has been treated with sunscreen to burn, compared with skin that hasn't been treated with sunscreen.
As a rule of thumb, the higher the SPF number, the better the sun protection. However, it does not mean that you always have to use SPF 60 because you think it gives you double protection compared to SPF 30. Doctors and experts usually recommend that as long as you use SPF 30 or higher, you will get sufficient protection.
Not all sunscreen lotions deflect both UVA and UVB; some only protect against UVB. To ensure that you are getting protection from both UVA and UVB, look for the words "broad-spectrum" or "full-spectrum" when purchasing sunscreen products.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should look for certain ingredients in sunscreens to ensure broad-spectrum protection. The ingredients are avobenzone, cinoxate, ecamsule, menthyl anthranilate, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, oxybenzone and sulisobenzone.
Sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also considered to be safe and effective as neither of these two ingredients penetrate the skin.
Using it correctly
Using sunscreen correctly
Sunscreen has to be applied correctly in order to get the maximum protection against UV radiation. This might sound like common sense, but you would be surprised to learn that many people do not use sunscreen properly.
A common mistake is applying too little sunscreen. A tiny dollop will not be enough - be generous; you need about five to six teaspoons of sunscreen to cover the entire body.
Slather the sunscreen generously on all body areas that will be exposed to sun, especially your face, ears, hands, arms, lips and head (if don't intend to wear a hat), and rub it in generously. Your skin should be dry and you should apply it 30 minutes before you go outdoors.
Sweating, bathing, swimming and drying with a towel can cause sunscreen to wear off, so you have to reapply it at least every two hours or more frequently. Even water- and perspiration-resistant sunscreen cannot offer indefinite protection.
Children above the age of six months can already start using sunscreen, and some brands offer child-friendly products with colourful packaging that make it fun and easy for kids to apply sunscreen on themselves.
For children below six months, it is best to keep them in the shade with the appropriate clothing.
Other ways to protect yourself
Other ways to protect yourself
Sunscreen lotions are not the be-all and end-all in sun protection, as they are only one aspect of the big picture.
You may forget to put on sunscreen, or may not be using enough. That is why sun protection should also include avoiding the sun during peak hours, and wearing protective clothing.
The highest amount of UV radiation is emitted between 10am and 4pm in the day, so try to avoid spending lots of time under the sun during those hours. Remember that the UV rays can penetrate your skin even through clouds or through windows, so be aware of how much you are being exposed to.
Protective clothing is just any clothing that covers your skin, including long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.
If you spend a lot of time doing outdoor activities such as golfing, swimming, gardening or walking, you might want to consider investing in special sun-protective clothing that prevent absorption of UV rays.
At the end of the day, sun protection is about common sense. Don't overdo it and avoid the sun completely, as sunlight is still important to generate vitamin D. Just remember that too much of anything is bad for you.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist (FRCOG, UK). The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader's own medical care.