Facts & myths on sunbathing

We are in the middle of the summer and many of those who are currently on summer vacation chose seaside as their holiday destination – be it a local, Baltic Sea in case of Poland or some more distant place at Cote d’Azur for example. Couple of weeks ago I went cycling and decided to take a little break and drink some water nearby the lake. Consciously or not I overheard a conversation between two women, around 30-years-old. They were talking about the sunbathing product for a while but they got it all wrong. Which inspired me to write this post.

The discussion about doing sunbathing right should start with explanation of the structure of solar radiation and how it can influence our bodies. The Sun radiation that reaches our planet covers the wavelengths between 100 nm and 1 mm which is pretty broad. The shortest wavelengths region, which is also the most energetic one is the Ultraviolet. This part of the radiation can be further divided into UVC (Ultraviolet C) – it is mostly absorbed by the atmosphere of the Earth and it almost doesn’t reach the surface of our planet. UVC is invisible to the human eye, it also has germicidal properties.

Next is UVB (Ultraviolet B) which is also absorbed by the atmosphere in the vast percentage. However the UVB radiation that reaches us is responsible for sunburns and it can directly damage the DNA of your body cells. Ultraviolet A (UVA) was once believed to be less harmful to us than UVB but nowadays it it’s the A part of Ultraviolet spectrum that is considered the most dangerous. UVA doesn’t affect our skin DNA directly. It does it by producing free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Those two are like small bombs invisible to our eyes. They bombard out bodies causing chain reactions that are hard to stop. In result a cell DNA can mutate and start replicating itself – that leads to cancer. Interesting thing is that this same UVA radiation is used for artificial tanning! Also due to the lower energy, the UVB part of the spectrum doesn’t penetrate our skin deeply while more energetic UVA has the power to penetrate deeper parts of our skin, where it can damage our collagen and elastin fibrils – leading to photo-aging after years.

Between 380 nm and 780 nm is the visible part of the solar spectrum and you can see it with your eyes. This part of the spectrum is the strongest one when it comes to irridiance. Lastly there’s Infrared covering the part between around 700 nm and 1 mm. It’s an important part of electromagnetic radiation reaching the Earth. Our bodies feel this part of the spectrum as the warmth sensation. Infrared can be also grouped into A, B and C type. Now you know what is what in the solar spectrum and how it affects our cells in a harmful and dangerous way.

I have met with a general public opinion that many people think that you should protect your skin from the direct sunlight only in the summer when the sunlight is the most intensive and most direct. Wrong! The sun shines all year round. No matter if you can see it in the sky, or if it’s covered by a thick layer of clouds or even if it’s raining, the radiation from the Sun reaches the Earth and affects us. The radiation can be also reflected from plain and shiny surfaces like water or snow. This means that we should think about the proper skin protection not only in the summer but also in spring, autumn and winter. Remember – it’s for your own sake!

Cosmetic products dedicated to sunbathing, which are meant to be a protection from the sunlight, should be “equipped” with sun protection factor, SPF in abbreviation. Many people are mistaken thinking that the higher is the number of the SPF they’re using, the more safe they are during bathing in the sun. That is both true and false. It’s true that higher SPF values provide a better protection but the number on the sunblocker bottle isn’t equivalent to the percentage of how well protected we are. SPF 100 doesn’t give 100% of safe fun in the sun.

Such thing as 100% of sunblocking protection doesn’t exist, even in the current advanced state of cosmetics chemistry. No one has invented the substance that will ensure that we won’t get affected by the Ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The number following the SPF on the packaging of your sunscreen tells you how many times longer will your safe sunbathing time be. What is that “safe sunbathing sun” you might wonder. It’s the amount of time that passes from the moment you expose your skin to the sun without sun protection to the moment until you observe first symptoms of your skin turning to the defence position – when it becomes locally red. So if your skin turns red from the sun after 15 minutes, SPF 20 will allow you to stay longer in the sun for 20 times. Scientists and cosmetologist still argue if this is actually true or not as researches prove differently.

Now that we’re speaking about the sun protection factor, you should also know that there are two categories of substances that can protect us from the harmful UV radiation we’re exposed to every day. First category are physical filters, also known as mineral or inorganic filters. Two chemicals are currently used in this group and these are titanium dioxideTiO2 and zinc oxideZnO. Both are commercially available in a form of white powder. If in the past you once used a sun cream which despite long rubbing-in always left a thin white layer on the skin – you were using a cream with a physical filter. Nowadays the white marks from mineral filters are not an issue because particles of these oxides have nano-size and are not visible to human eyes.

The protective mechanism of physical filters is to reflect the harmful radiation of the UV spectrum. Those filters don’t irritate skin and have high photostability. The only problem with them is that they can’t be used alone in the final product. They need to be accompanied by silicones, fatty acids or oxides of aluminium or zirconium to fulfill their role. The second group of UV filters are chemical filters. These are specific compounds, in practise all of them are organic, which protect our skin cells by absorbing the radiation of a specific wavelength or the range of wavelengths. All these protective molecules have a lot of double and triple bonds. To this group you can count in the synthetic derivatives of: para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), cinnamic acid, salicylic acid, anthranilic acid, benzophenones, camphor derivatives, benzoilmethane and others. Most often used are octocrylene, drometrizole trisiloxane, avobenzone. Sunscreen products should contain at least 3-4 of them to provide the right level of protection against the sun.

Sun protection specifics should be picked carefully and specifically for the person that will be using them. Skin of every one of us is different and has its very own phototype, in other words we’re speaking of complexion. People with light carnation should choose higher SPF factors than those of darner carnation. Red-haired people have especially low levels of melanin in their skin and should be extra careful while spending time in the sun. Picking an SPF 30 product will provide you with 98% of absorbed UV radiation. There is also a group of natural products and extracts such as shea butter, argan oil, beta-caroten, lycopene, aloe vera or green tea extracts that are capable of stopping the chain reactions caused by radicals, lowering the damage done to your skin.

The final question is – what kind of cosmetic products with SPF should you choose. The answer to that isn’t complicated. Lotions, creams and milks are the best due to their consistency and other ingredients that also nurture your skin. Most of these products are also waterproof. But they sometimes can leave a sticky layer on top of your skin. If that is a problem for you try using sunbathing oils with a proper sun protection factor. Those are dry oils which will evaporate few minutes after application, they will leave shiny and non-sticky layer on your skin. Many people, especially ladies like them because they optically make your skin look more darker. Shiny surface also presents the body shape better. It’s better to re-apply them after taking a dive into the water.

Marketing tip – your sunblocker doesn’t have to be expensive. Actually it’s better to decide on one which is from the middle-priced shelf as in this segment of the market the competition is the highest and brands have to try their hardest to offer a product that will make you come back for another bottle when you run out. I hope that this post taught you a lesson and that you learned something new and valuable. Sun is for everyone and you can’t hide from it for your entire life that’s why you should profit from exposing some bare skin to the sun but in a healthy and most of all, safe way.

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13 thoughts on “Facts & myths on sunbathing

  1. jillie says:

    This is very interesting reading, Lucas; it’s great to have the scientific background. I wish that everyone could see what you have written and be sensible about their sun protection.

    I don’t go out in the sun much as I have an allergic reaction to sunlight – my husband calls me his little vampire! – and when I do, I make sure I am well covered and wear a hat; a neighbour once commented that I looked like a character out of a Merchant-Ivory film when I was gardening! Most lotions with SPFs irritate my skin (probably all those parabens etc that you mention), so my best option is not to expose my skin. The upside of not being in the sun for years is that I am practically wrinkle-free. The downside is that I am deficient in Vitamin D and have been prescribed D3 and Calcium supplements by my doctor. The perceived wisdom now is that everybody should let the sun bathe their skin, just arms and face, unprotected for only 15 minutes a day to top up their Vit D levels, and that they should take proper precautions for the rest of the time to avoid damage and skin cancer.

    It still amazes me that people are willing to roast themselves for a tan. I prefer to be pale and interesting!

    • lucasai says:

      Thank you! I do hope that some people who find this article will be willing to share it via some other media so that more people know these facts.

      I suppose you can treat that “little vampire” as a compliment. That’s too bad that these products give you skin allergy. You’re most probably allergic to the chemical filters – they are often skin-sensitizing. Mineral filters would be better for you in this case. And lack of the sun results in the insufficient amount of vit D in your organism. People often think that they will have more vitamine D in their bodies when they sunbathe while in fact just a couple of minutes in the sun as you walk down the street to the shop is enough

  2. I always see sunscreen claiming to protect against UVA and UVB rays, but I never really understood what that meant so thanks for this in-depth explanation. I wear sunscreen during the summer but I don’t always remember to wear it at other times of the year – I really have to be better about that!!

    • lucasai says:

      Glad I could provide you with some useful information. I always suggest that: for a year round use chose a daily face moisturizer that has an spf 15

  3. hajusuuri says:

    Great article, Lucas. You may have saved a few lives with this.

    I sometimes layer several products that happen to have SPF. For example, my face primer may have SPF 20 and my make-up base SPF 25. Does this mean I am wearing a total of 45 or does only one of them matter? (The higher one or the one layered on top farthest from skin or the one closest to skin?)

    Also, in the cooler months and of course also during the summer, certain body parts are covered. Are these body parts considered UV protected because they are covered or must the clothing be impregnated with “cloth-SPF”?

    • lucasai says:

      Thanks dear! I hope it will find a bigger audience than my regular followers. Everyone should be educated about safe sunbathing.

      I’m not sure as I’ve never heard about it but I suppose that SPF don’t “cumulate” if you use a couple of products. I would say that is such case you are protected by the higher SPF value.

      I think that SPF for clothes doesn’t exist, at least I’m not familiar with such term. But clothes give you enough protection – you don’t get tanned under your clothes when you’re in the sun, right?

  4. Mary K says:

    This is very good and definitely should be shared with others, as there are still so many people out there that feel the need to get a dark suntan. I’m very fair and like to be outside when the weather is nice, but limit my time in the sun or else apply sunscreen.

    I’ve noticed that my houseplants will burn, too, at the beginning of summer if I put them outside and the sunlight is too direct. They need to be gradually given more sun and some never want full sun.

    • lucasai says:

      Thanks Mary K and you’re totally right. Some people crave this dark tan, especially during summer.

      Sounds to me like you know how to use the sun.

      Fine notice about the plants. Recently my lavender died, I kept it in my room by the window, I guess it got too much sun anyway because I watered it regularly.

  5. Mary K says:

    Sorry to hear about the lavender plant. Sounds like it possibly did get too much sunlight.

  6. Katherine says:

    Thank you for this post. The number one cancer killer of women under 30 in America is Melanoma. I work for a dermatologist and we see cases diagnosed every week. A broad spectrum SPF of 40 or higher should be used year round including the ears and tops of hands.

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