Photo-ageing is caused by exposure to UV radiation built up over a lifetime and results in wrinkles, dark spots, broken blood vessels and sagging and leathery skin. All these signs of ageing skin can be greatly reduced if protection from the sun’s rays is used on a daily basis, regardless of the weather.
This is hardly new advice and a lot of people are now making sure they buy products that have sun protection. However, they still might not be using the right products in the right way to protect skin against future damage.
Labelling on sunscreens, moisturisers and make up that offer sun protection are both confusing and inconsistent. Different brands use different labelling systems. And though things are getting better, it has crossed my mind that some brands exploit our confusion and lack of knowledge on this subject i.e a lip product SPF 15 might sound impressive but in a lot of cases it’s pretty useless.
Knowledge is key to making the right choices. Therefore, I thought a guide to UVA and UVB rays, the active ingredients in sunscreens, application tips and the different systems brands use to label their sunscreen products would be the best anti-ageing advice I could give.
What’s The Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays?
1. UVA (Long-Wave)
UVA penetrates skin more deeply than UVB rays. It accounts for up to 95% of UV radiation you’re exposed to. It plays a major part in skin ageing. It contributes to and may initiate the development of skin cancer. It is the dominant tanning ray and sunbeds primarily emit UVA. It penetrates through clouds and window glass and is present during all daylight hours and throughout the year.
UVA rays are split into two ranges: UVA1 – 340-400mn and UVA2 – 320-340mn.
The conclusion from the most recent studies is that UVA1 is more damaging to the skin as it penetrates deeper.
2. UVB (Short-Wave)
UVB is the main cause of skin reddening and sun burn. These rays are strongest during the summer months, especially between the hours of 10am and 4pm. It plays a key role in the development of skin cancer. It does not significantly penetrate window glass but is reflective and up to 80% can bounce back from water, snow and ice. It does contribute to photo-ageing but not as much as UVA. The range for UVB rays is 290 -320nm.
Active Sunscreen Ingredients
Sunscreen ingredients falls into two categories: mineral (physical) and chemical. Within those categories the ingredients will protect against either UVA1, UVA2, UVB or a combination of those. As mentioned above it’s important to make sure the product you choose protects against UVA1 as this causes the most skin damage.
Mineral sunscreens work by reflecting the UV rays away from the skin and chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays.Debate rages over whether a mineral or physical sunscreen is best but there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Mineral sunscreens are the ones that leave traditionally left a ‘white cast’ on the skin though formulas have significantly improved so this is now less of a problem. However, they can cause flashback in a photo though this can be avoided if coloured loose powder is applied on top. Chemical sunscreens are more likely to cause irritation with the main culprits being PABA (which is rarely used these days) and Oxybenzone.
Some formulas actually use a combination of both types. The only way to find one that works for you is through trial and error and being aware of the active ingredients so you pick a product with different ones the next time.
Following is a chart that lists sunscreen ingredients and shows whether they’re chemical or mineral and which rays they protect you from. As you can see, only Zinc Oxide and Avobenzone (aka Parsol 1789 and Buty Methoxydibenzoylmethane) can protect against UVA1.
Sun Screen Application Tips
1. Sunscreen should be applied after moisturiser and before foundation. It’s best to wait for moisturiser to sink into the skin before applying sunscreen and if you mix it into your moisturiser or foundation you will dilute it’s effectiveness.
2. With products that contains chemical sunscreens you should wait 20-30 minutes after application before going outside so it can form a protective layer. With mineral sunscreens you’re protected as soon as it’s applied.
3. Sunscreen should be patted on to the skin. This will reduce the chances of irritation, provide a more even application and help stop your foundation from pilling or balling.
4. You’ll need to use about a teaspoon/5ml of product evenly spread over your face and neck to get the level of protection stated on the bottle or tube. This sounds a lot but is doable with a true sunscreen product. It’s harder to manage this with a foundation without looking overly made up, which is why it’s best not rely on foundation for sun protection.
5. Ideally, sun protection should be applied every two hours. This might be easy to do on holiday but in the course of normal life it is far from practical. If it can’t be done, topping up with a make up product with sun protection is definitely better than nothing.
6. Once you’ve finished being outside for the day, it’s preferable to throughly cleanse the face at the earliest opportunity. This will help avoid clogged pores etc.
Sunscreen Labeling Systems
This stands for Sun Protection Factor and is followed by a number between 2 and 100, though rules in most countries now state that SPF 50+ is the highest rating that can be put on a product. It’s important to know that a SPF rating indicates the level of protection you’ll get against UVB rays but NOT UVA rays.
SPF measures the length of time a product will protect your skin from burring compared to how long it would take your skin to burn without protection. Here’s how it works:
Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time.
|A L’Oreal Paris Foundaton With SPF18 Which Doesn’t Protect Against UVA Rays|
The Star Rating System
This was developed for Boots and has become the standard for sun protection manufacturers in the UK and Ireland. The stars range from 0 to 5 and indicate the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB.
It is worth noting that a low SPF along with 5 stars doesn’t provide high UVA protection because the ratio between UVA and UVB protection is about the same. Therefore you should look for at least an SPF 15 along with 5 stars.
PA stands for protection grade of UVA and is the Japanese measurement of sun protection, though it’s also used by some American and European brands. It is followed by the + sign and works as follows:
PA+ provides some UVA protection
PA++ provides moderate UVA protection
PA+++ provides good UVA protection
The PA system is used alongside the SPF system and to get the best protection look for product with at least SPF 15 and PA+++. Brands that use the PA system include Laura Mercier, Nars, Christian Dior and Khiels.
|A Kiehls BB Cream That Uses The Asian PA System|
UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum
When Broad Spectrum follows the SPF rating on a product it means it provides protection against UVA and UVB rays.This is an Americian system regulated by the FDA. A sunscreen must past the Critical Wave Length test before Broad Spectrum can be added to a label. The protection against UVA rays can be comparatively lower than it is for UVB rays. Estee Lauder, Clinique and Bobbie Brown are amongst those that tend to use this system.
|A Clinique CC Cream That Uses The American Broad Spectrum System|
As you can see the lack of a global and cross-brand uniform guide to sun protection means the only way to be sure of buying what you want is to understand what all the terms and symbols mean. And if a product doesn’t show a Star or PA rating or specifically say it is broad spectrum it is probably best to assume it won’t protect against UVA rays.