The recent RPS survey of 2000 adults in Great Britain showed just how little understood sunscreens are.
Only 8% of people knew that the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) on bottles of sunscreen provides protection from UVB light alone and does not include protection from harmful UVA rays – typically indicated by a separate ‘star’ rating. Both UVA and UVB light are harmful to skin and can cause skin cancer.
Protection from UVA is shown by the star rating system which goes from zero to five stars, with more stars giving greater protection. The star rating indicates how much UVA light is absorbed in comparison to UVB – so even if a product has a high star rating, it may not give enough UVA protection if the SPF of the product is low.
I’ll confess this was news to me too when we first started investigating the topic. All this matters, because rates of skin cancer have increased dramatically since the 1970s due to our love of suntans, which we’ve come to associate with good health.
At the moment, bottles of sunscreen typically have the SPF number on the front, the UVA stars somewhere on the back, brand information and lots of small print instructions. It’s hard to make sense of it all and I’m not surprised there’s confusion.
European Union recommendations for sunscreens describe the SPF as low (6 to 14), medium (15 to 29), high (30 to 50) and very high (50+). We’d like to see these labels adopted across the industry, along with the highest possible protection from UVA, to create a broad-spectrum sunscreen consumers can be confident in choosing. If you’re not sure what to buy, ask your pharmacist.
We’ll be meeting soon with the trade body The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, to discuss the current situation and what can possibly be done going forward.
In the meantime, if you want a tan, don’t bake it but fake it. There are lots of great fake tan products out there that can give you the glow you want and you’ll be doing your skin a huge favour.