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Do you really know what SPF Factors mean?

Isn’t summer wonderful ? - time to get outside, enjoy the results of all that hard work you put into the garden earlier in the year, and take part in the frenzy of fun activities and events that occur across the UK.

But with the recent news that skin cancer is increasing, most of us now know that we need to protect our skin from over exposure to the sun.

The key advice of course is to wear a hat, protective clothing, and stay out of the sun between 11am and 3pm when the rays are strongest. But using the correct factor sun protection creams is also important. The SPF lettering you will see on most sun screens stand for sun protection factor.

With factor 50+ creams now coming on the market, there is some confusion about what one should buy. Many people think that the higher the factor, the more protection they will get. But really the factor numbers indicate the length of time you can stay out in the sun rather than the sheer strength of the protection offered.

What that means is that if you apply a sunscreen with a SPF factor of 15, you can stay out in the sun for 15 times longer than you could with no sun cream protection on before you become burned. If you apply a factor 30 cream, then you can stay out for twice as long.

But the actual length depends on how quickly you naturally colour up and burn. If you have very fair skin, and colour up in the sun after 10 minutes; then a factor 15 will allow you stay out for 15 times longer, or 150 minutes (2 ½ hours). If you have a naturally darker skin that won’t colour for maybe 30 minutes before you start burning, then a factor 15 potentially would allow you to stay out for 450 minutes or 7½ hours without burning.

What this means is that if you are only intending on being out in the sun for a short time, a lower factor sun screen would be just as good as a high factor.

However, as with so many products, things aren’t quite so simpler. While the difference in actual protection from the different factor sun screens can be minimal - SPF 15 filters out around 93 per cent of all incoming UVB rays while SPF 30 keeps out 97 per cent; nevertheless this difference can be important if you are light-sensitive or have a history of skin cancer.

There is no sunscreen on the market that can block all UV rays.

And while we are on the subject of rays, just to recap from an article we did in Laterlife in May 2009, the sun gives out three different types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA, UVB and UVC. UVB is the main cause of sunburn but UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are associated more with wrinkling, leathering. Both these types of rays can contribute towards skin damage and skin cancer.
The third type of UV ray, UVC, is the most dangerous of all, but it is completely blocked out by the ozone layer and doesn’t reach the earth's surface, thank goodness.

Interestingly, when you are out in the sun and your skin turns red, this is a reaction to just the UVB rays from the sun and gives no indication of the damage being caused by UVA rays.

There are so many products n the market now that it is worth taking the time to read the details of the protection they offer on the labels. If you have any doubt, always talk to the pharmacist who will be able to give informed advice on the best sunscreen for you to use.


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The above article is part of the features section of laterlife.com called laterlife interest. laterlife interest contains a variety of articles of interest for visitors to laterlife.com written by a number of experienced and new journalists.

It includes both one off articles and also associated regular columns of a more specialist nature such as Healthwise, Gardener's Diary, our regular IT question and answer section called YoucandoIT and there's also 'It could be you' by Maggi Stamp laterlife's counsellor on human relationships. 

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