Protection against harmful rays

Getting under your skin

To avoid sunburn, everyone needs to understand their own safe level of exposure to sunlight. As well as spoiling a holiday, reddened and sore skin is a sign of damage which is more than just a short-term problem, it can have significant long-lasting consequences, such as facilitating the formation of melanoma. Even for people who do not burn easily, prolonged, thoughtless exposure to the sun will still cause their skin to show signs of premature ageing and increase their risk of developing other skin cancers, such as Basal and squamous cell carcinomas.

And you, what’s your skin type?

To avoid sunburn and damage to the skin, everyone must protect themselves differently from the sun according to their individual characteristics. It’s important to remember that exposure to the sun’s rays can cause skin cancer to develop.

Human skin comes in a thousand shades, and the level of natural protection from the sun’s rays depends on its pigmentation. People’s skin type is often associated with their eye and hair colour, but these two factors can be misleading, because many people have very pale, sensitive skin despite having dark eyes and hair; conversely, others are natural blondes but with due care can also tan intensely.

So, to work out to what extent we can safely expose our skin to the sun, it’s best to use the scale below which classifies skin into six phototypes and find the one which is closest to our individual features.

Type I

Burns very easily, usually without tanning. Often, but not necessarily, they have freckles, blond or red hair, and light-coloured eyes.


Type II

Burns easily and tans poorly. Tends to have fair hair.


Type III

Usually tans after getting sunburnt initially.


Type IV

Rarely gets sunburnt and tans easily. Tends to have dark hair and dark eyes.


Type V

Has naturally brown skin, even when not exposed to the sun. Eyes and hair are usually brown or black.


Type VI

Has naturally dark brown or black skin, even when not exposed to the sun. Eyes and hair are usually dark brown or black.

Choosing and using the right sunscreen

Every year, picking the right sun protection factor (SPF) can be quite a conundrum. The US Food and Drug Administration recommends factor 15 as the minimum, adapting the protection factor to the specific skin type: if it is fair, a higher SPF, i.e., 30 to 50 is necessary. However, in the light of the evidence that continues to accumulate on the risk associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun, the most recent recommendations issued by the scientific community raise the ideal SPF to 30 or higher, always choosing broad-spectrum protection.

The Skin Cancer Foundation warns that extra care should be taken when engaging in outdoor activities for a prolonged period.

After initial exposure to the sun, darker phototypes can gradually reduce the level of protection, while people with lighter skins need to stay on their guard. Nevertheless, it is advisable for everyone to continue to apply sunscreen, even when they have a nice tan and the threat of sunburn from UV-B radiation has subsided, they are still at risk of dryness, premature ageing and skin cancer triggered by UV-A radiation.

This is why a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen should be chosen, which guarantees protection from both types of UV light. Check that the product has the anti-UV-A symbol next to where it indicates UV-B protection.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that sunscreens have an expiry date too which is written on the packaging with a symbol, just like other cosmetics, this is an open jar marked with a number and the letter M, meaning the number of months it can be left open before it expires. Sunscreen products are usually good to use for 9 to 12 months after opening. If it has expired, it means that the filtering action no longer provides proper protection, exposing the skin to the risk of damage.

When to apply sunscreen

Numerous scientific studies have been carried out to ascertain when and how to apply sunscreen. Most agree that it is advisable to apply it at least a quarter of an hour, if not half an hour, before the skin is exposed to the sun - this means it is a good idea to do it before going out of the house or hotel. But once is not enough: sunscreen needs to be applied several times a day, every two hours according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. This should then be repeated after every dip in the pool or the sea, or after outdoor sports. If the packaging says the sunscreen is water resistant, it ensures a degree of protection in the water, although it is inevitable that contact with water will reduce its efficiency, especially after rubbing the skin vigorously with a towel to dry off. So, it is always better to apply sunscreen again after going in the water.

Selecting a sunscreen and how much to put on

A good sunscreen doesn’t have to be very expensive: aside from the packaging and marketing costs, all the main companies offer products that are similarly good at protecting the skin. It is therefore better to choose a mid-range product but apply it generously, than to favour quality over quantity: according to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people apply less than half the recommended quantity.

Generally speaking, a palmful is enough for the legs, arms, face and neck of an average adult. Watch out for the areas it’s harder to reach: the backs of the hands, feet, ears, the backs of the knees, legs and neck – this is where people most often get burnt.

Chemical or mineral?

Sunscreens use two methods to protect the skin from the sun’s rays. There are chemical filters that work a bit like a sponge to absorb ultraviolet radiation (they contain substances such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate). These are the most popular formulas on the market because they are easier to apply and don’t leave unpleasant white marks on the skin.

Physical filters, on the other hand, act like a shield that sits on the surface of the skin, reflecting the sun’s rays. They contain mineral substances such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and are recommended for more sensitive or irritable skin, as well as for people who are allergic to chemical filters.

Nowadays, many cosmetics such as moisturising cream, foundation, primer, BB cream and CC cream contain UV filters. This is a plus, but it doesn’t guarantee adequate UV-A and UV-B protection (the SPF is often not very high), as a very recent article published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology warns. So exercise caution, don’t rely too much on make-up alone or a delicate area like the face may not be properly protected.

More than just sunscreen

There is more to sun protection than sunscreen. People with the more sensitive phototypes and children should pay particular attention and use other means too:

  • a hat, preferably with a wide brim to protect the back of the neck and ears as well, which remain uncovered using caps with a visor. Straw hats provide less shelter than those made of thick fabric;
  • when spending time outdoors, but not at the beach, use light clothing that provides a barrier from the sun. Some clothing companies certify sun protection on the label. Dark colours protect more than light colours, dry fabrics more than wet ones;
  • sunglasses with lenses that protect against at least 99 percent of UV-A and UV-B radiation, this may also be expressed on the label as blocking wavelengths below 400 nm. Larger models which cover the face towards the temples and prevent the sun’s rays from entering through to the sides protect more;
  • When the sun is strong, there’s no substitute for sheltering in the shade, especially during the middle of the day. This interval needs to be longer for people with the more sensitive phototypes and when the sun is stronger.