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Do you know your UVA from your UVB?

sunscreen

It’s a good time to stock up on sunscreen, but working out which bottle offers the best protection isn’t easy. This guest post from Nina Goad explains all, from SPF to star ratings.

It’s getting to that time of year, a stuttering start maybe, but the first sunny days of the year are definitely here. As things begin to heat up, and spring turns to summer, more of us will be dropping a bottle of sunscreen into the shopping basket.

The question is though, what sort of sunscreen do you want to go for, and what do the labels mean? Surveys have shown that most of us only have a vague idea of what the numbers on sunscreen bottles actually mean, and what level of protection we should be aiming for.

The sun’s rays from UVA to UVC

When talking about sun protection, it is useful to understand a little about what we are protecting ourselves against – UV radiation. UV radiation from the sun is transmitted in three wavelengths – UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC does not penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, so we only really need to protect against UVA and UVB.

UVA is associated with skin ageing. UVA leads to wrinkles and sun-induced skin ageing, as well as skin cancer. UVA can pass through window glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB.

UVB is the form of UV irradiation most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to melanoma and basal cell carcinoma risk, two types of skin cancer.

If you find it hard to remember which is which, some experts recommend remembering it as ’UVAgeing‘ and ’UVBurning’.

What does SPF mean?

SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is the level of protection that the sunscreen offers against UVB rays, so it can be understood as the sunburn protection factor.

The British Association of Dermatologists recommends a minimum of SPF of 30. Used in conjunction with other sun protection methods, such as finding shade and wearing protective clothing, including a hat, this will give you a good level of protection from the sun.

What about UVA?

In addition to the SPF number, you may well have noticed that most bottles have a UVA logo, the letters ‘UVA’ printed in a circle, or a number of stars.

The UVA logo indicates that the sunscreen meets the EU recommended level of UVA protection. If your sunscreen uses the star rating system for UVA labelling, we would recommend a minimum of four or five stars.

It’s very important to realise that under both these systems the ratings are always in relation to the SPF – so if your SPF is low, your UVA rating will be low too.

I hope this has helped clear up some of the more confusing aspects of sunscreen labelling, so that you’ll know what to look out for next time you’re shopping. However, I think you’ll agree that the system is unnecessarily complex.

This is a guest post by Nina Goad, Head of Communications for the British Association of Dermatologists. All opinions are Nina’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Comments
Guest
Mark says:
27 May 2016

I am very disappointed by your lack of noting the escalating allergy issues to MI/MCI preservative contained in sunscreens. The reason Ultrasun is really expensive is that is the only sunscreen that is declared MI/MCI free.

Guest
Mark says:
27 May 2016

http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_178.pdf
For latest report showing rates of sensitisation in uk have now increased to 6% ie over 3.5 million sufferers in UK alone – it is probably a lot more as it is very difficult to get diagnosed.

Guest

We agree that MI/MCI is a huge problem and have been campaigning extensively to see it banned. Check out our website and FB for some of our work in this area.

Guest
Jo says:
29 May 2016

Hi Mark. There are many sunscreens that do not contain MI/MCI preservatives. Ultrasun is just one of them.

Guest
Mark says:
29 May 2016

I’d like to see it flagged in the Which? test. I did google searches & it was the only one I found.
I am just a normal person & I don’t have detailed information about which products are safe.
I think there should be a UK register of safe UK products. A lot of the website are mixed up with US respondents.

Guest

This looks to be a debate on the relative values of the different types of skin cream ,in other words an advert for their products . I am more interested in the different types of people who are liable to be more susceptible to melanoma . As predicted it is those with white skin and of those who,s DNA relates to Nordic races or Northern European Tribes of long ago who invaded Britain . We are talking here of blond hair people /red haired people who noticeably have fine pale skin /blue eyes /green eyes , and yes your guess is right the worst cases of this disease in the UK come from Scotland in particular Glasgow has a high % of people developing skin cancer . Many cases were highlighted of going to hot climes for their holidays over many years or in some cases even a few years and developing the disease , long ago there was a ban/restriction on public commercial premises selling sun bed use because it was so prolific . The Nordic Tribes invaded Britain long ago and held sway from the northern islands all the way down to the isle of Man including parts of Ireland and it took a long time to drive them completely out . Those with medical conditions that lower body immunity are also worse off as are those climbers of mountains where the rays are stronger . This was given major coverage in Glasgow newspapers over many years due to near epidemic proportions of sufferers who put hospitals under severe pressure . I should also mention that the UV rays can cause ,in the long term cataracts . I realise this is a bit depressing rather than just the merits of different brands but I believe the public should be told the truth and plain facts put forward.

Guest
Mark says:
27 May 2016

It is difficult to put sun cream on when you are allergic to it. It is not an advert, it took me a whole weekend to find a sun cream for my daughter. I am on the same side, I am trying to prevent cancer. The product I ended up getting only got 3 stars in the test & now I am very worried.

Guest

You make some very pertinent points here. It is true that fair skinned people are at higher risk of skin cancer (as are those who are immunosuppressed etc) and we do tailor our messages to target high-risk groups as much as feasible. I was asked to author a short article to help sort out confusion over sunscreen labelling specifically, so couldn’t really go into the genetic, environmental, immunological and behavioural factors that all impact on skin cancer risk, but it is true that there is a complex interplay between many different variables that affect skin cancer prevalence. This certainly makes our public messaging far trickier than for some other campaigns!! We are about to launch an app (in mid June) called UV&Me which combines local UV data with each user’s skin type information to attempt to tailor the messaging a bit more.

Guest

I agree, allergies to MCI/MI can make product selection a minefield. Have you tried Altruist sunscreen? It was developed by a dermatologist to raise money for charity and I think it is MCI free but double check