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Sunscreens – More than just protection from sunburn

The reality is, appropriate use of sunscreens not only helps to provide immediate protection from sunburn and reduce the incidence of skin cancer, but,it also prevents premature ageing of the skin, writes John Bell. So, let’s get serious about sunscreen!

The Slip, Slop, Slap campaign featuring Sid the Seagull was launched in Australia in the 1980s. It became internationally recognised as one of the most successful public health messages ever devised. Similar campaigns have followed in Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

Sid used to tap dance across our TV screens wearing board shorts, a T shirt and a broad brimmed hat, encouraging us all to slip on a long sleeved shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat. Most recently the campaign message has been extended to include seek shade and slide on sunglasses.

The sloppy component of the message has become the most controversial. Over the last few years, sunscreens have received a mixed press; their benefits have been questioned and their widespread use often criticised – quite unfairly (there’s no evidence that the so-called nanoparticles pose a problem). The reality is, appropriate use of sunscreens not only helps to provide immediate protection from sunburn and reduce the incidence of skin cancer, but, sit also prevents premature ageing of the skin.

If you grew up in the 50s and 60s,or may be even before then, you’ll probably remember common ingredients – sometimes the only ingredients – in sunscreens were the edible oils such as coconut oil and peanut oil. They were called suntan oils. Frequently, for just a modest fee, you could be sprayed from head to toe with one of those tropically fragrant concoctions. Cooking oils would have been a more accurate description; and the kitchen is still the best place for these products.

Those were the days when it was almost a rite of passage that you got sunburnt – really sunburnt – at least once a summer. And, a sun tan was considered to be the sign of good health. The fact is there is no such thing as a safe tan. Unless you’re born with tan skin, a tan is evidence of skin damage; and most likely, significant damage beneath the skin as well. For all of us who have inherited the Anglo/Celtic skin type, protection from the sun is a very important health strategy.

Of course, we know that some sun exposure is healthy. It promotes the process of vitamin D manufacture within our body, and that’s quite apart from our general sense of wellbeing (we don’t feel nearly so happy being confined indoors – or even being outside on cloudy days).

Sunscreens - More than just protection from sunburn“Over the last few years, sunscreens have received a mixed press; their benefits have been questioned and their widespread use often criticised – quite unfairly.”
John Bell

With regard to vitamin D, it’s almost impossible to obtain enough from food; in fact we get around 90 per cent of our vitamin D from exposure to the sun. However, it’s important to strike a balance between sufficient sun exposure for adequate vitamin D production and minimizing the risk of sun damage. In most parts of Australia – “tank top” (face, hands and arms) exposure for 10 minutes, three or four times a week during the spring and summer months, is ample time. Also, short exposure to sunlight is more efficient at producing vitamin D; so the need for vitamin D is no excuse for getting sunburnt.

We should remember, too, the adverse effects of sunlight on the skin are cumulative. The damage on and beneath the skin is building up, even without burning. Protection from the sun is essential. And Australian researchers have now confirmed the cosmetic benefit of routine use of sunscreens.

A study of 900 young and middle aged men and women was undertaken with half the group using sunscreen daily on their face, hands and arms; and the other half using it less frequently or not at all.

The participants who were regular users showed no detectable increase in ageing after the four and a half year period of the study which was published this year.

So, what sunscreen should we use? Well, it needs to be labelled water resistant, “broad spectrum” and with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15+ (that’s the type used in the Australian study). For those of us with sensitive skin, products with the new maximum SPF of 50+ will be even better. There are creams, lotions, gels and spray-on varieties; your pharmacist can advise you on what’s most suitable.

Of course, as important as ongoing protection from the sun is to know what our skin normally looks like and to identify any changes – changes that might indicate an underlying serious condition that requires medical attention.

Check out the article sourcing Cancer Council Australia in this magazine, or go to the website knowyourownskin.com.au. You’ll see why skin checks are so important and learn how to check your own skin.