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The UV problems of summer sun                                              May 2009


summer sun

Summer’s coming – and everyone seems happier. Days outside, gardening, holidays; summer is a wonderful time of the year.

It is also the time when we are bombarded with advertisements heralding the latest sun tan products and also health warnings telling us to cover up and ensure we are using the right protective sun creams and lotions.


This is a difficult area. Many of us will have friends who have lived in the tropics or warmer climates and have a year round tan with no problems at all. There are a lot of people aged 80 plus who have continually exposed themselves to hot sunshine with no problems other than leathery skin and sun spots.

On the other side of the coin, in the UK skin cancer is said to be the fastest growing type of cancer, with 65,000 cases being diagnosed each year and 2,000 proving fatal. This is said to be because so many more of us are now visiting hotter countries and therefore exposing ourselves to far more intense sunlight.

Staying in the shade, wearing a hat and protective clothing, staying out of the sun between 11am and 3pm when the rays are strongest, using correct factor sun protection creams – most of us will be well aware of all the precautions we can take to help keep us safe.

But it is a complex area and some recent research says the use of high factor sun creams could actually be having a detrimental effect.

The sun has both UVA and UVB rays. The UVA rays do not cause sunburn. However, they can cause the skin to age and there is also concern that they increase the risk of malignant melanoma, this is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. UVB rays cause the sunburn that you can see and feel, but they are also responsible for increasing the risk of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, both forms of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Most people will now apply some form of protective sunscreen before spending too long out in strong sunshine. Sunscreens today coming with different protection levels known as SPF, this higher the SPF the longer the protection you will receive. For instance, a cream with an SPF 15 will allow you to spend 15 times longer in the sun before you begin to burn.

Most sunscreens today say they offer protection against both UVA and UVB types of rays. However, the problem that has been identified by researchers is that because SPF factors only look at burning times, the protection times really only apply to UVB rays.

While protective sunscreens can be very effective against UVB rays, they are not quite so good at preventing the damage from UVA; and it is these rays that can cause DNA damage to deep skin cells, the layers of cells that regenerate the skin. Researchers believed that damage to the DNA of these cells could be a factor in increasing a person’s risk of developing skin cancer.

The concerns of the researchers is that sun screens encourage people to stay out in the sun for longer. That means that they could be exposing themselves to an increased risk to DNA damage in their deep skin cells, although they would be well protected against UVA rays.

There is now a star system coming in to indicate the level of UVA protection in a product – one star is the lowest protect; 4 stars the highest. However, work still needs to be done here and scientists are trying to develop a new generation of sunscreens that will include better and more precise protection against UVA.

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