How to Protect Yourself from the Sun?

Summer is coming! 

Honestly, I wish, it weren’t. I am not a summer person. It’s hot, you need to avoid the sun, and you just don’t feel like doing anything. Well, at least that’s me during hot days. Summer also means that I put extra attention to the way I protect myself from the sun. As in winter, I am already dressed up, and the sun is not as intense, so my daily SPF is all I need. In summer, a few extra steps are necessary to protect against UV rays. Since May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve decided to share with you a few tips that might be helpful when it comes to sun protection. These are the things that I do myself in order to stay safe in the sun.

  • Seek shade  I think this one is the most crucial one, the less time you spent in direct sunlight, the better. It’s recommended that you avoid the sun when it’s the most intense which is between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. However, I would say always stay cautious about sun exposure. And I don’t mean only the time when you go for a beach holiday or go out for lunch around noon. No, when you go for a beach holiday, you intend to sunbathe so don’t fool yourself. When I say seek shade, I also mean it for daily settings. It includes a variety of situations in which you should and can avoid the sun. To name a few, it’s taking a bench that is under a tree; it’s walking on the side of the road where there’s shade or having your lunch under an umbrella rather than in an open space. We may not always associate these situations as contributing to sun damage, but they do. It’s enough to sit in a park for 30 minutes or have lunch outside, and without any protection, your skin will burn. It is always necessary to seek shade during sunny days, and don’t forget your sunscreen because light causing damage reflects.
  • Cover-up – As much as I appreciate sunscreens, physical protection with fabrics and sunglasses is superior in my opinion. Also, thick body hair can prevent some sun rays, but it isn’t the most reliable source of sun protection. Contrarily to sunscreens, the sun protective properties of fabrics do not degrade with time; you can not sweat or wipe them off. As long as you are wearing clothes, hats, and other accessories, you are protected.The sun protective properties of fabrics depend on the type of material, their density, and colour. Tightly woven fabrics protect better, also fabrics with darker dyes, as they absorb the light. Synthetic fabrics let less light through as there are fewer spaces between threads. Fabrics’ anti-UV properties are measured with the UPF scale (Ultraviolet Protection Factor), which refers to both UVA and UVB protection. Do not confuse it with SPF, which only covers UVB. For example, a fabric with UPF 10 allows only 1/10th of the UV rays to go through it and reach the skin. For example, a white T-shirt has UPF of 5-7 depending on the fabric, but it decreases to around 3 when wet. Whereas, denim fabric has UPF about 1000+ providing complete protection from the sun. So in this case, it would be best to wear a cotton T-shirt underneath a denim jacket. However,  anything that you put on top can be made from any other fabric like wool, polyester, etc. I believe in wearing layers of clothes as my cover-up method. It may seem like not a good idea in summer, but if you layer a few light fabrics, they do provide decent protection. After a while, your body gets used to it. Moreover, there are special UPF clothes made out of materials that are specially designed to protect from the sun. Usually, they range between UPF 30 and 50+. It is an excellent option if you can find something suitable for yourself. I do not prefer UPF clothes on a daily basis, but for holidays they are great.There are also a few accessories which I recommend incorporating to cover-up more efficiently. They include hats, neck gaiters, arm sleeves, gloves, and umbrellas. For these, I do rely on UPF fabrics, and even umbrellas have UPF ratings, not each is made equally I guess. There are many options on the market, and I highly recommend looking into them as they are a very practical way to protect against the UV rays. You do not need to apply an SPF product on the parts of the body covered by such fabrics. If you have short hair, look into neck gaiters because it’s easy to get burnt on the back of your neck. If you are a driver, look into gloves because while driving you get only the worst type of light – UVA, as UVB doesn’t penetrate glass. Hats and umbrellas are great for stalls, sightseeing, or daily walks in the city – if you can’t find shade then create your own.Last but not least, when it comes to the best methods to cover-up – sunglasses are your friends. Protecting your eyes is tremendously important. You only have one pair of them in your life, so take care of them as much as you can. I don’t mean you have to spend hundreds on a fancy pair of sunglasses, absolutely not. A pair of sunglasses with good lenses at an affordable price can be found at any optician’s. The standards for sun protection levels of sunglasses are not as uniform as of sunscreens around the world. In various parts of the world, the protection levels are represented with multiple symbols and labels, for instance, UV400, numbers 1-3, etc. When I shop for sunglasses, I usually look out for the numbers 1-3, which correspond to the standards adopted by the European Union (also Australia). Sunglasses sold in the EU, conforming to the EU’s rules, should have two signs: CE and sunglasses’ category represented with a number (you can also find a writing ‘cat.’ and then followed by a number). Sunglasses meeting the standards should block out both UV and visible light. I personally prefer lenses with category 3. Lenses with category 3 block about 82% of visible light as well as provide very high UV protection in many cases 100% (categories 1 and 2 give less protection). There’s also category 4 which means that less than 10% of visible light isn’t blocked, but such sunglasses are not suitable for driving and hard to come by. Though sunglasses with category 4 are useful for mountaineering and other high altitude activities. You can also find polarised sunglasses on the market; polarisation reduces glare. If sunglasses don’t have a visible print on them stating that the lenses are polarised, usually you should be able to find a letter next to the category number. Where P stands for polarised and N means non-polarised lenses.
  • Sunscreen – I think it’s not a surprise that I am advocating the use of sunscreens. I use sunscreens on a daily basis. When I go out without a sunscreen product on my face, I feel sort of naked. Sunscreens have been a staple in my daily routine for many years now, and putting one on in the morning is just a habit that I have. To get the sun protection stated on the label, we need 2mg of product per a cm² of skin; that’s how sunscreens are tested. The EU’s recommendation is about 36 grams which equal to, a bit larger than usual, six full teaspoons for an adult. If we divide the amount by six body parts (face & neck, arms, trunk, and legs) each should get about 6 grams. A standard teaspoon is 5 grams, so you need to make sure you apply a bit more if you measure your sunscreen. You should use a teaspoon for face & neck, a teaspoon for your arms, two teaspoons for your trunk, also two teaspoons for your legs. If you apply 5 grams instead of 6, it’s about 30 grams of sunscreen in total per application. It is still a pretty good amount, but when it comes to sunscreens the more, the better. And don’t forget about your ears, back of your neck & hands, and feet if exposed! It’s important to remember that no sunscreen provides 100% protection. Everything that I’ve written above should also be taken into consideration.I prefer sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher (UVB protection) and encircled UVA symbol or PA+++ or higher (UVA protection). I don’t opt for sunscreens stating broad spectrum only, as it is a vague term, I have no idea what type of UVA protection they provide. I am referring here to American sunscreens, whose UVA protection is often low, many American sunscreens do not meet the EU’s standards. The EU’s sunscreen recommendation of UVA to UVB protection in a ratio of not less than 1:3 is similar to Australia’s guidelines. But Australia has a bit stricter rules, e.g. sunscreens also have to meet specific water-resistance standards. The 1:3 rule helps us to choose a sunscreen that gives reliable protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Though, it doesn’t mean that sunscreens necessarily will have SPF 30 and PPD 10, not at all (PPD – Persistent Pigment Darkening, is one of the methods to measure UVA protection levels). Some brands even market their sunscreens saying that they provide protection stricter than the EU’s recommendations, which I assume means that the ratio of UVA to UVB is more like 1:2. When it comes to Asian sunscreens, I like to follow the EU’s rule, which means that I buy sunscreens with SPF 30 and PA+++ (PPD 8-16) or higher and sunscreens with SPF 50 & 50+ only with PA++++ (PPD 16+). A reminder from this post, SPF does not mean the percentage of coverage, but merely the time during which we are protected (SPF 30 prevents about 97% of rays and SPF 50 about 98%, a small difference). SPF 50 doesn’t convert to protection in only 50%, but it informs us that it takes 50 times longer for sun damage (skin erythema) to occur compared to when a sunscreen product does not cover the skin, e.g. if you usually burn in 10 minutes then with SPF 50 you will get: 10 x 50 = 500 minutes before you start to burn. However, you need to remember that sun filters degrade over time; we sweat, and it’s easy to wipe off sunscreen. So do not hope for one application sunscreens, it just doesn’t happen. It’s crucial to apply and reapply any sunscreen product every 90 to 120 minutes and after sweating, towelling, or swimming.

When should I protect myself from the sun?

I understand that the majority of people do not wish to do full sun protection on a regular basis. In Australia, the government recommend that people should protect from the sun when the UV index rises to 3 or more. In some parts of the world throughout the year, the UV index is below three only in the early morning or late afternoon, so ideally you should protect yourself daily. I like this guideline as it is easy to check the UV index either online or on a mobile application. But if it’s a particularly sunny day and the UV index shows 2 or 1, I still apply sunscreen because why not. To check the UV index, I use an application called UVLens available for iOS and Android. Also, weather applications preinstalled on smartphones show UV index, but they may indicate it with words, which isn’t very specific.

And for people who really do not want to bother with checking the UV index, the most straightforward rule would be if you feel like you need sunglasses when you go out then you also need additional sun protection.

What about vitamin D?

Vitamin D is crucial; we all need it, and we can all produce it. However, it doesn’t mean we need to burn ourselves. It’s hard to say how much sun exposure is enough for providing the amount of vitamin D required by our bodies and how much sun exposure is safe. There isn’t a clear answer about that; even scientists don’t have one. You will find recommendations like 10 to 30 minutes a day is enough, but it all depends on your skin type and location. I personally believe that incidental sun exposure and a diet including foods high in vitamin D content are enough to provide me with a sufficient supply of vitamin D in summer. In winter, I rely on my diet and vitamin D dietary supplements. We can find vitamin D in oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel), red meat, liver, and egg yolks. Also fortified foods, but these are not popular in all parts of the world, some countries even banned fortified foods.

Here’s a new study from India, measuring vitamin D levels of patients with melasma who applied a proper amount of sunscreen for three months. The vitamin D levels weren’t much affected. Though, this study only focused on a short period of time, whereas these studies 1, 2,3 indicate that long-term use of sunscreens may contribute to lower vitamin D levels. You need to consider that not everyone applies and reapplies adequate amounts sunscreen. Unless you measure each sunscreen application, you most likely you still get some vitamin D while using sunscreen. If you get vitamin D from the sun, then don’t torture one part of your body all the time, try to expose all parts equally.

Update 11/06/2019:

In this study, the scientist estimated how much sun exposure is needed for getting satisfactory vitamin D levels. According to this paper, it’s enough to expose 35% of skin surface area for 13 minutes, three times a week, in the midday sun of Manchester to get enough vitamin D. The other estimates were for New Orleans, San Diego, Athens, Washington where you only need 9 minutes of exposure. In Boston 10 minutes, Vancouver 11 minutes, Brussels 12 minutes, Oslo 16 minutes. The participants wore T-shirts and knee-length shorts. (In June, the average UV index is about 6, in Manchester – this wasn’t in the study). DOI: 10.1038/jid.2009.417

You can find more information on these websites:

06/05/2019 Update: The percentages in the original version of the post referred to the visible light that goes through lenses, not UV light. I have corrected the mistakes in the text.

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