Surviving summer: Myths and facts about sunscreen

In partnership with SA’s top medical aesthetic companies

Summer’s here, and along with it comes the obligatory warnings about sun protection. No glazing over, please. Here’s what you really need to know about protecting your skin against the sun this summer.

With our incredibly high level of year-round sunshine and long, hot summers, SA ranks way up there for sun damage on our skins, so the importance of sun protection is a message South Africans need to and do hear over and over again.

But is it as easy as slapping sunscreen on our faces and avoiding the sun between ten and three? Or is there a little more to consider?

There is so much info out there – both good and bad – about sun protection and especially about sunscreens. Knowing the actual facts could be a lifesaver – literally!

MYTH or FACT? All I need to worry about is sunburn

MYTH. Painfully red and inflamed, sunburnt skin is definitely not the worst thing that can happen to our skin in the sun.

The fact of the matter is that sun damage goes well beyond the burn. It causes mutations, direct and indirect damage to the DNA inside our skin cells, which we see as noticeable changes to the skin – fine lines and wrinkles, dryness, dark spots, age spots, leathery skin, loss of firmness and elasticity, uneven complexion.

Numerous studies have shown that repeated unprotected ultraviolet exposure, even for short periods at a time, breaks down collagen. This causes that loss of firmness. It’s a double whammy – as we age, our natural collagen production decreases. Combined with the effect of sun damage, this means our skin will look old well before it should if we keep up our sun bunny habits.

And then there’s the really scary stuff – we rank among the world’s highest for skin cancer.

MYTH or FACT? I only need to start worrying about sun protection in my thirties

TOTAL MYTH! Dermatologists tell us that most of the damage we see on our skin happened before the age of 18.

The visible signs of ageing from sun damage can show up on our skin as early as our twenties, but it’s between 35 and 49 that the real damage comes to the fore.

The more diligent we are about protecting our skin, the better our chances of looking younger for longer.

Most importantly, the deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, is one of the most common cancers in young adults (especially young women) under 30, so ensuring we practice safe sun from childhood is vitally important.

MYTH or FACT? Only people with lighter skins need sun protection

REALITY CHECK! Everyone needs to protect themselves against excessive sun exposure.

It’s a fact that darker skin types have more natural protection than lighter skin types, and that they vary rarely burn. But, as we’ve mentioned above, burning is only one aspect of sun damage. In darker skins, we see this damage mostly as patches of dark, uneven pigmentation, especially when hormones and acne are also involved. While rare, darker complexioned people can also get skin cancer from sun exposure, but it is mostly detected later, with serious consequences.

MYTH or FACT? I only need to use sunscreen for sun protection.

MYTH! Sunscreen is the last step in sun protection.

Staying in the shade between 10am and 3pm is your first protection.

Wearing protective clothing, UV-protective sunglasses and wide-brimmed sunhats, along with your sunscreen, is a must.

MYTH or FACT? Sun protection factor (SPF) factor is the only thing I need to worry about

FACT: SPF only shows one aspect of protection – against UVB radiation.

The sun’s Ultraviolet B radiation causes sunburn, and the SPF factor indicates the time you will be protected against burning. How you work this out: if you turn slightly pink in ten minutes when in direct sunlight without sunscreen, calculate your level of protection according the SPF. 10 minutes x SPF 30 = 300 minutes of protection before the sunscreen has to be reapplied… In theory. (See How much and how often below).

The other, possibly more significant, thing you need to consider is how much UVA protection the sunscreen offers, as Ultraviolet A rays are much more destructive. They are the ones that damage the DNA of cells, causing skin ageing and also skin cancer, and they can penetrate through glass, so you’re at risk of damage indoors as well.

And then there’s visible and blue light and Infrared, which have been found to cause sun damage too.

And so….

The important thing is to read the sunscreen label. Look for ones that say broad-spectrum or broad-screen protection, which means it protects the skin against both UVA and UVB rays.

Good modern sunscreens should also offer protection against visible and infra-red light, as well as giving you antioxidant protection, moisturising the skin, etc.

MYTH or FACT? All sunscreens are the same

MYTH! There are several types of sunscreen and they all do different things.

The most significant difference is between physical/mineral sunscreen filter ingredients and chemical sunscreen ingredients.

Mineral sunscreens like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide form a physical shield on the skin that blocks or reflects the sun’s rays whereas chemical sunscreen ingredients get absorbed into the superficial layers of the skin, neutralising the sun’s rays.

For sensitive or inflamed skin types a 100% mineral sunscreen is preferable as it doesn’t penetrate the skin, minimising the risk of irritation.

MYTH or FACT? I need to stop using sunscreen because it is bad for the environment and it has ingredients that are harmful to me.

TOTAL MYTH! Sunscreen has had a bad rap in recent years for reasons varying from chemicals used to its impact on the environment.

Sunscreen remains in the frontline of sun defence. The bottom line, again, is reading your sunscreen label.

Some ingredients, such as the chemical oxybenzone – a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and contaminates the body – should be avoided. Instead, look for active ingredients such as zinc, titanium, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. These protect the skin from harmful UVA radiation and remain on the skin, with little if any penetration into the body.

The effects of sunscreen on the coral reefs of the world is currently a subject of much debate. The only official actions taken so far are the banning of oxybenzone and octinoxate, initially in Hawaii and subsequently in other countries, so it is best to avoid these ingredients all together.

MYTH or FACT? If I use high SPF sunscreen, I can stay in the sun much longer and I don’t need to reapply

DANGEROUS MYTH! The common misconception that a higher SPF gives you a full day pass in the sun needs to squashed forever.

The truth is that sunscreen should be re-applied regularly, after sweating, swimming and towelling off especially. Also, the chemicals break down in the sun.

Second fact: most of us don’t use enough sunscreen to achieve the SPF indicated on the bottle. To get the full benefit, you need to use about two tablespoons of sunscreen on exposed areas of the face and body, with a R5 coin-sized dollop on the face alone. And then you still need to re-apply regularly.

To find out more about protection against the sun or to find suitable treatment solutions after the damage has been done, visit Skin Renewal on or contact 0861 SKIN SA (754 672).

Take the quick Beyond Beauty Survey and you could win a R2 000 Skin Renewal voucher to spend in our online store, with free delivery within South Africa. T&Cs apply.

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