Staying Safe in the Sun – Latest Sun Protection Advice

Written by Kate Goldstone

Getting the sun on your skin is wholly bad, right? Apparently not. After many years of being told that the sun’s rays are dreadfully dangerous, to be avoided at all costs, scientists are changing their minds. It appears we all need sunshine, and smothering yourself from head to toe in sun screen isn’t, after all, the brilliant idea it was cracked up to be.


Sunburn – Too Much Sun?

Until recently the official stance was to cover your skin from head to toe with special, tightly woven sun protective clothing and stay indoors out of the sun’s reach between 11am and 3pm. In extreme scenarios schools got involved too, demanding that parents cover their kids in powerful sunscreen and make them wear hats. But now the old-style official advice is changing. It looks like reasonable amounts of sunshine are actually essential for good health.

We thought it’d be useful to give our readers, the travelling public, the low down on the latest research into sunshine and how it affects our bodies.

Sun protection – The dangers of sunburn

Before we go any further, it’s important to point out some things about sun protection advice haven’t changed. Skin cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers and letting your skin burn or blister is still a very bad idea. On the other hand…

The risk of rickets

Childhood Vitamin D deficiency is on the increase as today’s children spend less and less time playing outdoors. In severe cases it can lead to rickets which is, according to the NHS:

“A condition that affects bone development in children. It causes the bones to become soft and weak, which can lead to bone deformities. Rickets in adults is known as osteomalacia or soft bones. The most common cause of rickets is a lack of vitamin D and calcium.”

Revolutionary stuff – NICE’s new attitude to sunshine

We get our vitamin D from the sun’s rays and experts now say we actually need to be exposed to it. Take Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, AKA NICE, which says it’s time to change our harsh attitude to sunshine.

Our skin can’t make vitamin D without it, and the agency’s latest draft guidelines on sun exposure tell a very different story from the tale we’ve been told so far. Having weighed all the evidence, NICE reveals that as long as you don’t get sunburned, you should be making an active effort to soak up those lovely rays. Most of us instinctively enjoy the feeling of the sun on our skin, and it’s nice to know our instincts are sound.

sun protection

Extreme Sun Protection

What about vitamin D supplements?

Supplements are all very well, but many experts believe there’s no need to go the artificial route when the sun is up there in the heavens, freely available to everyone on the planet. There are also questions being asked about the value of dietary substitues in general, as opposed to simply living a healthy, balanced lifestyle with plenty of outdoor fun and exercise.

Where did Britain’s long-held sun phobia come from?

How come Brits became so scared of the sun all of a sudden? Many believe it’s down to the fast-increasing levels of skin cancer seen in Australia. But they get so much more UV exposure over there than we do, and the resurgence of rickets over here, especially in kids with darker skin, gives lie to the original advice. But there’s more. Chronic sun deprivation can result in much more than rickets.

Immune system issues caused by a lack of sunshine

Get too paranoid about sunshine and you could end up with a compromised immune system. Some scientists are convinced that it eventually leads to auto-immune nasties like multiple sclerosis in later life. The word on the scientific street also hints a lack of sunshine can even make us more susceptible to cancers like colon, breast and prostate cancer. By the same token, exposure to reasonable amounts of sunshine lowers your risk of getting these awful diseases.

Doctors getting on board

Back in 2010 a bunch of respected doctors’ groups spoke out in protest against over-zealous sun protection. While they still recommended we limit our daily exposure to a few minutes, you can extend this with the common sense use of suncreams.

Sunburn is still a massive no-no, of course, but as it turns out, so is preventing your child from getting any rays on their skin at all. As a result parents are starting to chill out and let their kids go out in the sun without first covering them from head to foot with clothes and suncreams. It looks like the tide is turning and before long Britain will once more have a sensible attitude to exposure.

The latest NICE guidelines on sun safety for kids and adults?

NICE go a bit further than the doctor’s groups who made their opinions so clear five years ago. Their guidance is as follows:

  • For adults, the most important thing is to simply avoid getting burnt
  • For children NICE says it’s best to stay in the shade when UV levels are high, but it’s important to explain the benefits of the sun’s rays as well as its risks. They also feel it’s vital to talk to kids about skin types, just basic stuff like the fact that pale or freckly skin puts you at more risk of burning than a darker complexion

Interestingly, the NICE guidelines make the point that cancer scaremongering is a bad thing. In their words, “A skin cancer prevention campaign should also mention the risk of underexposure”. The University of Oxford’s Vitamin D expert, Julia Pakpoor, says the new guidelines are “a step in the right direction”.

A bit about SPF – Sun protection factor

So there’s no need to throw your sun cream out. But at the same time there’s a clear need to exercise common sense rather than assume any and all exposure to the sun’s rays is a killer. What does SPF involve? If you’re confused about SPF, here’s what Wikipedia says:

“The SPF rating is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, SPF 15 means that 1/15th of the burning radiation will reach the skin, assuming sunscreen is applied evenly at a thick dosage of 2 milligrams per square centimeter (mg/cm2). A user can determine the effectiveness of a sunscreen “by multiplying the SPF factor by the length of time it takes for him or her to suffer a burn without sunscreen.” Thus, if a person develops a sunburn in 10 minutes when not wearing a sunscreen, the same person in the same intensity of sunlight will avoid sunburn for 150 minutes if wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15. It is important to note that sunscreens with higher SPF do not last or remain effective on the skin any longer than lower SPF and must be continually reapplied as directed, usually every two hours.”

It’s a wrinkle thing…

Of course sun exposure advice isn’t just for kids. It’s for adults too. And there’s still no doubt that over-exposure brings on the wrinkles. If you’re someone who worries about looking older, it’s a compromise between delaying the skin ageing process and giving your body what it needs to stay healthy. As Wikipedia says:

“A 2013 study concluded that the diligent, everyday application of sunscreen can slow or temporarily prevent the development of wrinkles and sagging skin. The study involved 900 white people in Australia and required some of them to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day for four and a half years. It found that people who did so had noticeably more resilient and smoother skin than those assigned to continue their usual practices.”

wrinkly skin

Wrinkly Skin – Sun Damage?

Schools take a while to catch up

Apparently it’s taking a while for schools to catch up with ther latest discoveries. If your children’s school is still promoting the old, discredited story about steering clear of sunshine altogether, you might like to point them in the direction of this post, and to a pertinent article in New Scientist magazine from January 2015.

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The latest advice is… chill a little! Too much sun – like too much of most good things – isn’t wise, but just enough is perfect.

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