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The latest generation of sunscreens are changing the way we protect ourselves from the sun.
Sun protection has come a long way since we baked in the harsh Australian sun with completely bare skin, reflective foil at the ready. In the ensuing decades, once exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation was found to cause up to 90 per cent of skin cancers, sunscreen became a non-negotiable mainstay in our daily lives from childhood.
Today, Australian women are very conscious of the risks of premature ageing, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and other health issues that come from unprotected sun exposure, but conflicting information is also generating brand new issues. Our bodies are still designed to need a healthy amount of sunshine to synthesise vitamin D, which helps boost calcium absorption and bone health, as well as the immune system. So, are we getting enough of this vital nutrient?
Concerns have also been expressed regarding the chemical content of what we have been happily slip, slop, slapping. When supermodel Gisele Bündchen wisecracked about commercial sunscreen (“I cannot put this poison on my skin”), dermatologists such as cancer expert Dolival Loao slammed her carelessness, and the controversy raged on.
“Sunscreens do far more good than harm,” says Joe Lewis, a chemist who founded the Priori skincare line. “Think about the long-term effects of UV radiation on ageing and cancer.” One of the major changes in the industry is a revolutionary move away from the old-school chemical sunscreens (like those Bündchen criticised).
“Chemical agents (such as Helioplex, Mexoryl and octyl methoxycinnamate) actually absorbed UV light into the skin then dissipated it as heat energy,” Lewis explains. “The new ‘physical’ sunscreen agents, like zinc and titanium dioxides, are also chemicals, but they work as surface-layer protection by scattering, reflecting and blocking UV light.”
“It’s like having your own umbrella,” says Nicole Belle, owner of the Face Today medi-clinics in Cairns and Sydney. Belle made the switch to physical sunscreen when she commissioned the US complementary oncologist Dr Ben Johnson to create the bespoke sunscreen Parasol after seeing so many clients come through her doors with sun-damaged skin in need of repair. “Silica-coated micronised zinc is the safest sunblock ingredient available because it doesn’t break down like the old uncoated zinc, which was absorbed into our systems. Instead, it reflects the UV light away.”
Methodology is not the only change in sun protection’s brave new world. Now nearly all manufacturers are adding topically applied antioxidants to their sunscreens to fight the other downside of UV light exposure: the generation of free radicals that cause damage to important cellular components.
“Potent antioxidants like vitamins C and E in sunscreen formulations ‘quench’ the free radicals,” claims Lewis. “They form as a result of the UV light that leaks through the SPF barrier shield, because no sunscreen can be 100 per cent efficient. Sunscreen ingredients absorb or block UV light, but they are not free-radical scavengers like these antioxidants.”
For anyone who might still be looking for another rationale to dodge applying sunscreen, the fear of vitamin D deficiency as an excuse doesn’t really cut it either now that there are so many non-chemically absorbent products on the market.
“Australian women can keep up healthy levels of vitamin D simply by obtaining a few minutes of exposure to sunlight on either side of the UV peak, meaning before 10am and after 3pm on most days of the week,” says Emma Hobson, education manager at Dermalogica’s International Dermal Institute. “Vitamin D can also be obtained through diet from dairy products, tuna, salmon, cod-liver oil and, of course, daily supplements.”
As far as Hobson is concerned, there is simply no contest when one looks at the ease with which we can access sufficient vitamin D versus the benefits of shielding our fragile skin from the Aussie sun. “SPF is still the very best anti-wrinkle cream on the market, as it can also prevent brown pigmentation; broken capillaries; skin thickening; breakdown of connective tissue in the dermal matrix, such as collagen and elastin; and skin cancer.”
While the sun is the one constant in our lives, the methods with which we protect ourselves from all the downsides of exposure to it are likely to evolve even further. “With the sophistication of plant biochemistry, it is likely that sun protection could change beyond our current realms of comprehension,” Hobson says. “In a few years’ time we may even be popping a pill for our daily dose of sunscreen.” ¦
- Use a SPF30+ broad-spectrum sunscreen, which filters out both longer UV-A rays, which penetrate deeply to form wrinkles and long-term damage, and shorter UV-B radiation, which creates surface sunburn. But be aware that no sunscreen entirely blocks out the sun, so the term “sunblock” is not legally allowed in Australia. SPF10 blocks 90 per cent of UV-B; SPF15 blocks 92 per cent of UV-B; SPF30 blocks 97 per cent of UV-B.
- Avoid the harshest sun. The peak UV period is between 10am and 3pm.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours. After this time its effectiveness goes down to a dangerously low SPF6.
- Wear sunscreen even if you have dark skin. Darker skin takes longer to burn than fair skin, so the same SPF cream will also last longer. But some UV radiation still gets through and Mediterranean skin is more prone to pigmentation. All skin types benefit from sunscreen use.
- Apply it everywhere. While ageing on the face is the hot-button issue for many women, sunburn is a health issue above all else. Bare shoulders in sundresses and feet in sandals are also vulnerable. Even for driving, apply sunscreen to your exposed hands and arms to save years’ worth of sun damage.
- The best new wave sun protection
- The latest generation of SPF30+ sunscreens have evolved away from chalky white strips across cricketers’ noses. Matte, oil-free or rich textures allow skin-specific application, and wider product ranges bring multi-functional benefits.