Sun safety myths and facts

Know these facts and bust these myths about sun protection.

4 December 2018
4 minute read

Family playing in the sun

Summer is all about fun in the sun, right? Actually, as far as healthy skin is concerned, summer should be about avoiding the sun as much as possible! We explore some of the common myths and truths about the sun and skin cancer, so that you can approach your holidays – and all of summer – with the necessary care to keep you and your family safe.

First, the basics

What do UVA, UVB and broad spectrum mean?
Dr Sarina Drusinsky, an East London dermatologist, explains that UVA and UVB are different types of ultraviolet light from the sun. UVA light has a longer wavelength and can penetrate deeper into the skin, leading to ageing, suppressed immunity and melanomas. UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and are responsible for burning of the top layer of skin – which leads to various skin cancers.

Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

What is SPF?
Sarina explains that SPF is “sun protection factor”, a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays – but this depends on your own skin’s response the sun. For instance, if you start to burn after only five minutes in the sun, and you are wearing factor 30, that sunscreen will protect you from harm from the sun for five minutes times 30 = 150 minutes before you begin to burn. UVA protection is not rated by the SPF.

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However, rather than trying to work out how quickly you burn and doing an SPF calculation, Sarina suggests wearing a high factor sunblock and reapplying every two hours any time you are going outdoors. Make sure you apply it generously and cover all exposed skin.

Are there any other things to consider when selecting a sunblock?
Sarina says a sunblock should contain zinc oxide, titanium oxide or mexoryl for proper protection from the sun. She says that certain additives can cause skin or eye irritation, so it’s best to find a sunblock that’s free from perfume and parabens.

And now the myths…

Myth: A tan is a sign of good health
In fact, there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is a sign of sun damage. So make it a priority to protect your skin and your family’s, to prevent any sun damage at all.

Myth: People with darker skins don’t need to worry about sunblock
While people with darker skins are less likely to develop skin cancer, they are certainly not immune to the harmful effects of the sun. Bob Marley, for instance, died of a misdiagnosed melanoma under his toenail. Because it is less common in black people, skin cancer is often detected later, when it is more difficult to treat. In a country like South Africa – which has the second highest rate of skin cancer in the world after Australia – people of all colours should take precautions to protect themselves from the sun.

Myth: You shouldn’t apply sunscreen because you will become Vitamin D deficient
While Vitamin D, which your body makes when exposed to the UV rays in sunlight, is an essential nutrient, in South Africa, it is not necessary to leave your skin unprotected from the sun. Sunlight penetrates clothing, sunscreens are not 100% effective and you probably don’t cover your body every time you go anywhere near the sun.

Myth: SPF clothing is an effective sun repellent, so children don’t need to wear sunblock on their bodies
Sarina says that SPF clothing is only relatively effective, and the best way to protect your skin from the sun is still to wear a high SPF sunblock and reapply it regularly.

Myth: If you are wearing sunblock you don’t need a hat
No sun-protection method is 100% effective, says Sarina. Your face tends to get the worst of sun exposure because the skin is sensitive and because it’s always exposed – so a hat plus sunblock is your best defence against skin damage and skin cancer.

Myth: If children are wearing sunscreen and hats, it’s fine to play outdoors in the middle of the day
Sarina says this is simply not true. “Everyone should avoid peak sun hours between 11am and 3pm. Plan outdoor activities for early morning and late afternoon.”

Myth: If you are in the shade, you don’t need sunblock
Sarina explains that shade does not offer full protection from the sun. There are often gaps in shade and there may be reflection off cement, sand or water, which could lead to sunburn and sun damage as serious as that caused by direct sunlight.

Myth: If you are inside, you don’t need sunblock
Sunlight can penetrate windows and harmful rays are also emitted from fluorescent lights, high-intensity discharge lamps, halogen lights and copier machines. So even if you are going to be inside all day, it is still advisable to wear a sunblock, moisturiser or foundation that offers at least SPF 15 protection.

And remember, you also get a lot of sun exposure when you are in the car. The windows offer almost no protection against harmful rays. Don’t forget to put high SPF sunblock on your hands, too, if you are driving.

Get protected this summer!Distinguish between your sun protection myths and facts this summer to keep your skin healthy and cancer free, and to protect your children, too. In the long term, your youthful skin and overall good health will be a testament to the good care you’ve taken of your skin.

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