The burning question: What sunscreen should I use this summer?

Pricewatch: So you don’t want to be a lobster. Here's our guide to staying protected

Most of us apply only 20-50 per cent of the recommended amount of sunscreen, which means we end up with a lot less protection than we imagine. Photograph: iStockphoto

Most of us apply only 20-50 per cent of the recommended amount of sunscreen, which means we end up with a lot less protection than we imagine. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

At the stroke of midday today, on almost every beach on the Med, you will see local people packing up and heading for the shade of holiday apartments, hotels, caravans or tents.

By contrast, the Irish people on those beaches will almost certainly take the mini-migration as a cue to stretch out, lather on a bit more auld suncream and soak up more rays.

By midnight, many of those Irish people will have turned an alarmingly lobster shade which they will wear as a badge of honour.

But it is not just while we’re on our holliers in sun-kissed resorts that we disrespect the shining ball of gases that sometimes appears overhead; if the clouds part on any given day over the course of an Irish summer, you can be sure that within hours enough heat will be generated from the skin of burnt people across the land to keep the nation warm for winter.

Despite all the health warnings and despite all the potential for discomfort and mortification, Irish people are still not entirely comfortable with the notion of sunscreen. To be fair to us, it is a world that can be a little bewildering .

Should you go with spray, pump or bottle? How much should you spread and how often? Is the cheap bottle as good as the dear one? And what does SPF actually mean? And is there a difference between UVA and UVB and if so what the hell is it? And where does sunscreen come from anyways?

So, before the summer runs away from us entirely, we thought we’d answer some of the questions you might have . . . okay, honestly, we’re answering the questions we have, but hopefully you might find them useful.

Can you start at the beginning?

The beginning? No problem. The ancient Greeks used an olive oil-based potion to protect themselves from the sun but they – wrongly – believed the damage was done by the heat of the day. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that people realised sunburn was caused by the ultraviolet spectrum. That discovery led to the development of the first synthetic sunscreen in 1928.

Okay, maybe a different beginning. What exactly is sunscreen?

In the simplest of terms, it is a barrier which stops skin from absorbing ultraviolet (UV) rays which either ages the skin or causes it to burn.

Either? Does sunburn not age the skin and burn it too?

No. There are two kinds of UV: UVA and UVB. UVA ages the skin while UVB does the burning.

What is SPF and where did it come from?

Sun protection factor was the brainchild of Swiss chemist Franz Greiter whose cream was at the heart of the Piz Buin brand, a brand which got its name from the Swiss mountain where Greiter was once badly sunburnt. His first standardised suncream had an SPF of 2.

And what does SPF measure?

SPF measures a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging your skin. If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start going red, an SPF of 15 sunscreen should stop you burning for 15 times 20 minutes, or around five hours. SPFs can also be viewed through a percentage prism. So 15 filters out 93 per cent of UVB , 30 keeps out 97 per cent and SPF 50 keeps out 98 per cent.

So, with an SPF of 50 I can stay in the sun all day after a single application?

No. It makes little difference how high the SPF number is, sunscreens only offer protection for roughly the same amount of time, but the higher SPFs block more rays. Oh, and remember, sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.

What about my waterproof sunscreen?

A better phrase is water-resistant. No sunscreen is truly waterproof.

Is SPF the be-all and end-all?

Not remotely. SPF tells you how much protection you are getting against UVB radiation, but UVA radiation is harmful too, although not as obviously so. A star rating is used to indicate UVA rates: one-star cream offers “minimum” protection while five-star cream provides “ultra” cover.

It is okay to apply it when I am sitting in the sun, right?

Wrong. Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going into the sun in order for it to bond with the skin.

And how much should I put on?

More than you think. Repeated studies have shown that most of us apply only 20-50 per cent of the recommended amount of sunscreen, which means we end up with a lot less protection than we imagine. It should be applied thickly and evenly, with an amount about the size of a golf ball in your hand for use over your entire body. A better way of looking at it might be teaspoons. You should apply a teaspoon for the face, each arm, each leg, the front of the body and the back . You will probably end up using 35ml of sun cream for your whole body.

What kind of prices are we talking?

If done properly, a week’s supply of a well-known suncream for an average-sized adult will cost in the region of €35, while a week’s coverage from a Fancy Dan brand will set you back roughly €90. If, on the other hand, you buy your sunblock in Aldi or Lidl or Tesco, a seven-day supply will cost no more than €15.

But you do get what pay for, so should I avoid cheaper brands?

No. The price you pay is never an indicator of quality despite what marketing campaigns and expensively produced packaging on some pricier brands say. In fact, if you spend more on a bottle you might use it more sparingly and so it might actually afford you less protection than a cheaper bottle which you’d slather all over yourself. British consumer group Which? frequently tests sunscreens and has repeatedly reported that price is no indication of quality. It has found that suncreams from the German discounters fare very well when compared to branded rivals.

Is the bottle I bought last year still safe to use?

It might be but you might not want to take the risk. Somewhere on a sunscreen label you will see the icon of small jar and a number – 3, 6, 12 – followed by an M. That indicates just how many months after opening a product will last. But given that your suncream was probably in the sun, and heat damages chemicals, it might not last as long as it says, so you may as well chuck last year’s bottles before you go into the sun this year.

Should I buy sunscreen at home or when I travel overseas?

That depends on where you are going and where you are buying. Boots has great value suncreams, particularly when the ranges are on special. Suncreams in France are expensive, much the same price as here in Italy and cheaper in Spain, although the closer you get to the beach resorts there, the higher the prices.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.