The safe guide to buying and using sunscreen

The safety guide to using sunscreen Credit: REX

Another sunny week, another worrying report exposing a category of sun creams which may not be working as hard as we thought. According to a Which? report, 'once-a-day' sun creams are leaving thousands of holiday-makers at risk of skin cancer.  

The tests carried out by Which? revealed that after six to eight hours of wear, the average protection factor in a sun cream would fall by 74 per cent, so that an SPF30 say, would fall to an SPF8.  When it came to testing these once-a-day versions, including those by Boots, Piz Buin, Riemann and UltraSun, under UV lamps, the level of protection "significantly" dropped below the advertised level for each. Which? is now calling for a complete ban on all-day-sunscreen, following in the footsteps of the Australian beauty industry which has already enforced its own.  

Which? aren't alone in believing that sun cream sometimes ironically give users a false sense of security.  "We've seen an increase in skin cancers since the invention of sun filters as users have this false perception of skin safety," explains Dr Walayat Hussain of The British Association of Dermatologists.  Since the Seventies, malignant melanoma rates have more than quadrupled in Great Britain, and even over the last decade incidences have increased by nearly 50 per cent.  

So where does that leave the consumer? Confused and concerned no doubt. But there is a way to use sun-cream safely.  We spoke to Cancer Research UK and The British Association of Dermatologists for their tips on how best to buy, try and wear sunscreen safely. 

Pay attention to the ingredients - especially UVA filters

As seen in the Which? report it pays to shop for high SPF and UVA ratings, over price point and brands.   "Shop for sunscreen with a minimum of SPF30, to filter out the burning shorter UVB rays, and a recommended UVA rating of at least four stars," says Hussain.  While all products sold in the EU must contain at least a third UVA filters, "be extra vigilant when buying sunscreen online that products do contain a reliable UVA filter, to block out the longer rays responsible skin ageing and cancers," warns Hussain.

Don't rely solely on sun cream on the beach

"Always seek shade between 1pm-3pm, when the sun is at its strongest, and cover up with clothing, sunglasses and a hat too," says Dr Jana Witt, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer. "A sun screen is all part of your sun protective plan, not the plan in its entirety.  A sun screen isn't your ticket to stay out in the sun for, short casual exposure is fine, but there should never be a need to sunbathe."

Don't rely on sun cream on the beach   Credit: REX

Reapply cream every two hours

"Sun cream evaporates, while swimming, clothing and sweat means that it gets wiped off.  In reality you rarely have the same protection levels an hour or two later.  Keep reapplying as regularly as possible," says Hussain. 

Be vigilant with application 

"In the labs SPF ratings are tested an inch thick on a microscopic slide to see how much sunlight is blocked, which gives you an idea of how much you should be applying on your skin," says Hussain. "It's a very false way of doing things; your skin should feel covered, greasy even, good levels of sun cream, and you should be vigilant with covering all of your skin, particularly feet, behind the ears and the back of your neck."

Be vigilant with application    Credit: REX

Don't be fooled by the label waterproof

The European Commission is in favour of relabeling waterproof sun creams as ‘water resistant’ just as they have done in the US. In truth, no sunscreen is 100 per cent waterproof, and so the term should not be used. Plus, if you are exercising, perspiring and wiping skin you need to reapply sun cream afterwards. 

Plan ahead

"Generally speaking you want to apply sun cream 30 minutes before exposure," says Hussain, "to give cream time to absorb and stay on the skin and for the protection to start working."

How much should we apply? 

The general rule is a teaspoon for the face, each arm, each leg, the front of the body and the back – that’s roughly 35ml of sun cream for the entire body.

Ditch unused sun cream when you get home

On the back of every product you will see the icon of small jar, upon which will be a number, generally 3, 6 or 12, with an 'M' next to it.  That number indicates just how many months after opening you should bin your beauty product.  However, with most sun creams lingering in the sun, it makes sense to throw your bottle away after your sunny holiday, "as heat will damage chemicals so that they lose their protective effect," warns Witt.