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7 Reasons Why People Don’t Use Sunscreen (and the truth behind the myths)

Hi all!

A while ago I wrote a blog about my continuing brushes with early-stage skin cancer and the risks of sun exposure. It had great responses. It seemed people understood how important using sunscreen and sun protection was.

But skip forward to this spring, and with the recent cold weather, I’m painfully aware of how the message about UV And temperature not being linked still isn't getting through. The cool air from the north has led people to forget that they can still get sunburned, and badly. Not only that, I continue to have some crazy wrong info quoted to me. A very intelligent friend who’s a radio presenter said on-air once: “Well at least if it’s colder tomorrow I won’t have to worry about sun cream for the children,” after I gave a sunny, but cooler, forecast. Ah-ah-ah. The sun is as strong on late April day as it is in in mid August. Which is why it’s a really, really bad idea to only apply sunscreen when you’re ‘abroad’, but not bother in the UK even though we have strong sunshine here.

Figures from Cancer Research UK show that skin cancer rates have more than doubled since the early 1990s; around 100,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the UK every year and 7 people die from it every day – typically losing 20 years of their lives. Your risk of developing skin cancer increases with age, however skin cancer is the second most common cancer among the 15 to 39 age group.

There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and malignant melanoma. It’s the latter that is the most dangerous, and rates of malignant melanoma are rising faster than any other type of common cancer.

Yet despite that reality, could you really, hand on heart, say you always wear sunscreen when you should? Even I couldn’t. Yet, I couldn’t tell you a good reason why. Sometimes it’s laziness or about how close to hand the sun cream is. Other times I get caught out – I wasn’t planning to be outside for so long. And then there’s the secret naughty bit of me, that still likes a bit of colour on my alabaster skin.

So I set out to ask a random section of genders and ages: “Do you regularly apply sunscreen in the UK?”. Of course, wearing hats, seeking the natural sunscreen of shade, covering up are all ways to prevent sun damage. But I was particularly interested in sun cream. The results of that question are somewhat shocking to me, especially if you consider the fact that even Weathertrending staffers past and present (top-level meteorologists no less) are persistent non-sunscreen slathering offenders. For a start, I give you…

Johnny H (you know who you are): Male, 52

“As a child, sun cream was not something that was bought in our family household. Subconsciously, my attitude is that any serious damage has been done by now, so what’s the point? But I do put cream on if and when I go abroad in summer or when I’m skiing. Generally though, because I don’t like heat, I don’t seek the sun either, and my skin tans easily, I think I am low risk.”

Johnny’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are the top seven reasons I’ve been offered that people avoid the slip, slap, slop:

1.) “I put sunscreen on when I feel my skin burning.”

This is an easy myth to bat away, I’m sorry, but that’ll be too late. The warmth that you feel on your skin is infrared radiation and that’s not what burns you. It’s UV radiation that causes sunburn. And you can’t feel that. By the time your skin warms up from infrared radiation you’ll have been burnt.

In terms of how long it will take until you burn, your skin type will play a major factor. But the shadow rule will help. Don’t wait for the burn.

2.) “I’ve read that I need Vitamin D from the sun and sunscreen stops that.”

It’s true that UVB rays help your body to produce vitamin D. But most people can make enough vitamin D from being out in the sun daily for short periods with their forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered and without sunscreen from late March or early April to the end of September, especially from 11am to 3pm.

It’s not known exactly how much time is needed in the sun to make enough vitamin D to serve the body’s requirements. There are so many things that will affect how much vitamin D is made, like the time of day, your skin colour and how much bare skin is exposed. But a good rule of thumb is that exposure for half the time it would take you to burn should give you all the daily Vitamin D you need.

People with dark skin, such as those of African, African-Caribbean or south Asian origin, will need to spend a lot longer in the sun than someone who’s pale and freckly to produce the same amount of vitamin D.

And that brings us to…

3.) “My skin doesn’t burn.”

Ah, a classic excuse. And a myth. Even the darkest skin is at risk from long exposure to UV, and NHS guidance says we should all wear at least SPF15 sunscreen with at least a four star UVA rating. Even the darkest skin can burn. For everyone, the longer you stay in the sun, especially for prolonged periods without sun protection, the greater your risk of skin cancer.

In the 1970s the Fitzpatrick scale of six skin types below was invented, but there are questions now about how well it really helps people to decide if they burn. Recent studies show that people often put themselves into the wrong category.

  1. I: Always burns, never tans (if you have pale skin, red or blonde hair, blue eyes, and freckles)

  2. II: Usually burns, tans minimally (if you’re similar to Type I, and have green or hazel eyes)

  3. III: Sometimes burns mildly, tans moderately (if you have cream-white skin and have fair hair)

  4. IV: Burns minimally, tans well (if you have moderate brown skin)

  5. V: Burns rarely, tans very easily (if you have dark brown skin)

  6. VI: Never burns or tans (if you have very dark skin)

The medical truth is, there’s no safe or healthy way to get a tan. And a tan doesn’t protect your skin from the sun’s harmful effects. There’s a myth that a tan keeps you safe, but a fully tanned skin only provides the equivalent of SPF4 sunblock. Plus, no matter what type of skin you have, you can burn.

It’s a dangerous misconception that people who have dark skin tones often believe they don’t burn and they’re not at risk of skin cancer. While incidence of melanoma is higher in the Caucasian population, a July 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed it is more deadly in people of colour. African-American patients were most likely to be diagnosed with melanoma in its later stages than any other group in the study, which led to the worst prognosis and the lowest overall survival rate.

And take this statistic with you – getting painful sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of skin cancer.

4.) “I only need sunscreen when I’m abroad on holiday, not in the UK.”

While it is true that we don’t record the very highest UV levels in the UK, we do get to an 8 on the UV index scale. At that level sun protection is needed for all skin types. All of them.

During British Summer Time the sun’s UV rays are strongest between 11am and 3pm in the UK (those times vary in other parts of the world).

5.) “I don’t need sunscreen when it’s cold, or cloudy.”

Nope. Clouds still allow UV through. Factors that do affect UV levels include time of year, time of day, altitude and proximity to the equator.

Reflection is a major influencer too. Up to 80% of UV rays are reflected back from snow, 15% from sand, 10% from concrete and up to 30% from water (depending on how choppy it is).

The fact is, between April and October in the UK you should be wearing sunscreen every day.

And it’s worth noting that UVA rays can pass through glass so you can tan or burn through a window.

6.) “I hate putting it on, it’s such a hassle and a mess.”

While we’re on the subject, studies show most people don’t apply enough sunscreen. As a guide, adults should aim to apply around:

  1. two teaspoons of sunscreen if you’re just covering your head, arms and neck

  2. two tablespoons if you’re covering your entire body while wearing a swimming costume

If sunscreen is applied too thinly, the amount of protection it gives is reduced. If you’re worried you might not be applying enough SPF15, you could use a stronger SPF30 sunscreen.

Also, sorry, but it has to be reapplied throughout the day. And yes, sunscreen does go off, its efficacy is greatly diminished within two to three years, so that bottle you’ve had mouldering away in your bathroom cupboard since that 18-30 holiday to Bodrum? Bin it.

In my house, we’ve moved on to spray sunscreen. No muss, no fuss. It’s much more expensive, but I’d rather that than my children refusing to wear it altogether. No one gets their hands dirty.

But interestingly, children are also receiving stronger protection: a YouGov poll found that 61% of parents are slathering the kids in SPF 50 or higher – a figure only 21% of adults are applying to themselves. Adults are most likely to cover themselves in SPF 30 sun cream (32%).

In my experience the best sunscreen for the face wants to dry quickly, not be greasy, and ideally not clog up your skin. I like La Roche Posay’s Anthelios range.

7.) “I want a tan”.

I know. It’s a killer (literally), this one. Every now and again, a glossy mag will do a feature entitled: “Porcelain is the New Bronze” or “Alabaster Hollywood Beauties” and we’ll all stare lovingly at Emma Stone, Nicole Kidman and Jessica Chastain. Then we’ll see a photo of Elle Macpherson (that woman is 54 btw!) and it’s game over.

Anyway, the fake tans have come on so much. The biscuity smell has mostly gone away now (and I kind of miss it in truth). In another post on another day I’ll outline my findings of years of research (and hundreds of pounds) into what fake tans work the best, but for now, let me say this: money is no indicator of how well a fake tan performs (no matter what the advertising says), and if you can introduce it into your every day routine (hello daily moisturiser with low-level fake tan) you’re in good shape.

And spray-tan booths. They are the bomb. Just don’t do a Ross from Friends.

So that’s it. The main reasons people told me why they don’t put sunscreen on. I know I’m not going to change minds overnight about always putting sunscreen on, but as someone with yet another suspected BCC on their body, I can tell you, no short-lived tan is worth the worry and hassle of dealing with skin cancer.

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