Vitality's sun safety FAQ

Despite the running joke about how bad the British summer is (yes, there is such a thing!), occasionally the sun does grace us with its presence. Even if the temperatures don’t reach the heady highs of the continent, the sun is still powerful enough to do long lasting damage to skin, especially children’s that is more delicate. So if you’re out in the sun in the UK, or on the beach abroad, here are some tips to help you stay safe this summer.

What sun protection factor (SPF) should I use?

The SPF rating of sunscreen is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays blocked – for example SPF 20 means that 1/20th of the radiation will reach the skin. You can determine the effectiveness by multiplying the SPF factor by the length of time it takes to suffer a burn without sunscreen. So, if you burn after 5 minutes in the sun when not wearing a sunscreen, you will avoid sunburn for 100 minutes if wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 20.

Rather than finding out how long it takes for you to burn by not wearing sunscreen, you should always use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 – the higher the number the more protection you will have against sunburn. Make sure that you apply sunscreen at least 15 – 30 minutes beforehand and that you apply it evenly and regularly all over. Don’t make the mistake that a lot of people do by applying your sunscreen too thinly; doing so can reduce the protection the sunscreen offers.

What do the UVA and UVB ratings mean?

The SPF factor is a measurement of the amount of UVB protection – the sunburn producing UV rays which also play a key role in the development of skin cancer. In the UK, a star rating is used to measure the UVA protection – UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB and plays a large role in skin ageing, wrinkling, and contributes to the growth of skin cancer. The higher the number of stars, the more you’ll be protected from the damaging aspects of the sun.

How long can I stay in the sun?

You shouldn’t see wearing sunscreen as an excuse to be able to sit in the sun for as long as you want – rather as something to use that offers protection when exposure is unavoidable. There isn’t a set amount of time that you can stay in the sun for – everybody’s skin is unique and an SPF 15 rated sunscreen could last a varying amount. In the summer, the sun is most damaging to your skin in the middle of the day, so you should look to remain in the shade between 11am and 3pm.

Should I reapply sunscreen if I swim?

Sun cream and spray will generally be washed off when swimming in a pool or the sea and despite some sunscreens claiming that they are “waterproof”, even these should be reapplied after swimming. You should also be aware that the water can act as a double edged sword – it can have a cooling effect which can make you think you’re not getting burned, and it also reflects the UV rays, increasing exposure.

What’s the best way to protect children in the sun?

Young skin is even more at risk of burning in the sun because of how delicate it is. For this reason, children should be even more protected if they have to be exposed to the sun at all. A high factor sunscreen should be applied to areas not protected by clothing, such as feet, hands, face and ears. There are also sun creams and sprays that have been formulated for younger skin and so are less likely to irritate.

What should I do if I get sunburn?

Even if you do follow all of the above steps, there are still instances where you will get sunburn – be it from missing a spot when applying sunscreen, or not applying it regularly enough. If you do get sunburn, painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will help to reduce the pain and inflammation. The affected area should be sponged with cool water, and then aloe vera containing lotion, such as after sun, will help to sooth the burning sensation. You should try and stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone, and if you feel unwell or the skin swells or blisters you should seek immediate medical help.

What is sunstroke?

Sunstroke is a form of hyperthermia that occurs when your body’s internal thermometer goes from around 37°C to 40°C after being exposed to heat for a long period of time. At this temperature, the body is no longer able to cool itself and starts to overheat, with signs of sunstroke including dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps. If not treated quickly, it can lead to complications such as brain damage and organ failure, so be sure to seek immediate medical help if you see someone who is potentially suffering from sunstroke. You can prevent sunstroke and heat exhaustion by staying out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day, not leaving anyone in a parked car and staying hydrated with plenty of cold drinks.

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