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SPFs: Should we wear them every day?

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Take the time to read much of the information available on good skincare and most of it will give the same basic advice – clean your skin twice a day, use products appropriate to your skin type, exfoliate, drink plenty of water and use an SPF.

While we appreciate the benefits of SPFs and protecting our skin against the sun’s rays we believe there are two sides to this argument. In this article, we’re going to give a balanced, scientific argument on the pros and cons of SPFs, and as we all know the benefits of protecting our skin from the sun, we’re going to start with the negatives to give a different perspective.

Understanding UV Rays

To understand SPFs, we must first understand the rays of the sun. The sun emits UV, or ultra violet, rays, of which there are two types – UVA and UVB.

UVA rays are responsible for skin ageing, UVB rays for skin tanning and burning. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, but both can cause changes to our cells and DNA that can result in pigmentation changes and ultimately skin cancer.

So it’s clear that we need to protect our skin from the sun. Yes, the sun on our skin feels great, and lots of us feel better with a tan – but even a light tan is actually a sign of skin damage. In the majority of cases, we won’t go on to develop skin cancer, but sadly, 100,000 people in the UK alone do. The vast majority of cases of skin cancer are caused by sun exposure.

What is SPF?

An SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, is essentially a substance that filters the sun’s rays, so that we can spend longer exposed to sunlight without burning.

The problem is, when we read the names of these chemical substances so often added to skincare as a good thing, we begin to realise that they’re possibly not the saintly life savers we’re led to believe they are.

There are two types of SPFs

Chemical SPFs

Most regular SPFs are made using ingredients called oxybenzone, avobenzone and octinoxate.

Chemical SPFs work by absorbing UV radiation into the chemical bonds that hold the oxybenzone etc molecules together. When these bonds absorb UV light, they begin to break down and release the UV radiation away from the skin in the form of heat.

Mineral SPFs

On the other hand, natural, or mineral, sunscreens contain ingredients such as naturally occurring zinc oxide and / or titanium oxide. These ingredients act as a physical barrier against UVA and UVB rays. Mineral SPF’s are often very thick, white creams that sit noticeably on the skin. (Think cricketers in the summer, with thick, white stripes of cream on their noses – these are mineral sunscreens.)

Why are SPF’s unhealthy?

Their chemicals are absorbed into our bloodstream

The chemical UV filters and barriers are quickly absorbed into the skin and the bloodstream, and have been linked with skin allergies and irritation.

They’re linked with developmental issues and fertility problems

Chemical SPFs are thought to have the ability to mimic our own natural hormones, resulting in ‘endocrine disruption’ that can cause developmental issues in children, fertility problems and certain cancers.

They can block the skins pores

As mineral SPFs are often very thick and sit on the skin, they can reduce the skin’s ability to breathe, which could result in blocked pores and acne breakouts.

So whilst they’re not linked with the same negative health effects of chemical sun filters, mineral sun creams are still not ideal, especially for sensitive or stressed out skin types.

They reduce our vitamin D production

Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’. It earns this name as the body produces the majority of it when sunlight hits the skin. During the winter months, when the days are short, the sun is pretty much absent from the sky and we all wear extra layers, it’s thought that many Brits become deficient in vitamin D.

There aren’t many foods that contain vitamin D; mushrooms, fish with edible bones such as whitebait and fortified cereals and dairy products all contain some vitamin D. But we can’t rely on our diet for our full complement - we need sun exposure. For this reason, the NHS recommends that we all take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months.

We need vitamin D for strong teeth and bones, as well as for our mental health. A vitamin D deficiency is linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which causes a low mood and lethargy during the winter.

There is some evidence that SPFs, particularly high factor SPFs (SPF 16 and above), can reduce the amount of vitamin D that is produced by sunlight hitting the skin. It’s for this reason, plus that of allergies and question marks over toxicity concerns, that we’ve avoided the use of SPFs in Sönd skincare.

They’re damaging our oceans

It’s not only our bodies we need to be concerned about. Recent studies have shown that oxybenzone is responsible for the bleaching of coral reefs, after it enters the oceans by being washed off the bodies of swimmers and bathers. This is so worrying, that Hawaii have announced a ban on the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone as of January 2021.

The Plus Side of SPFs

SPFs help to protect our skin from the damaging rays of the sun, preventing skin ageing, sunburn and to some extent, skin cancer.

If our skin is in direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time, it can cause serious damage:

Protect skin from sun burns

If you’ve ever been sunburnt, then you’ll know how painful it is. The redness and blistering (then subsequent peeling) of sunburn is a result of literally cooking our skin. A light suntan is one thing, but sunburn is quite another.

Because sun burn isn’t just an irritating and embarrassing, holiday-ruining annoyance. Getting sunburnt can increase our risk of skin cancer in later life. UV light can damage the DNA present in our skin cells, which can lead to mutations that could lead to cancerous changes and ultimately, skin cancer. Repeatedly getting sunburnt will increase this risk.

Reduces skin ageing

A suntan might make us feel healthier and look good, but sun exposure is actually causing premature skin ageing at the same time. Signs of ageing in the skin include changes in the texture (the formation of lines and wrinkles), a reduction in firmness, the appearance of visible blood vessels and changes in pigmentation.

Studies have found, that when compared to other skin ageing factors, such as exposure to pollution, poor diet, smoking, illness and stress, as well as the natural ageing process, exposure to UV light is responsible for 80% of visible facial ageing signs. Most definitely a stat to remember, next time you’re sunbathing!

Protects from skin cancer

Numerous episodes of sunburn throughout your life, especially from a young age, can increase your chances of developing skin cancer. It’s not the burn that can cause skin cancer, but the associated lengthy sun exposure, where the sun is absorbing damaging UV rays.

Skin cancer can be extremely serious, and can kill if not caught early, so keep an eye on any moles you may have. If you notice changes in their colour, shape or size, or they begin to itch or weep, make an appointment to see your GP.

To SPF or Not to SPF…

We don’t believe there is a fixed answer to this. We believe that everyone should consider their own circumstances and make a decision that is best for them.

Being on holiday and laying in the sun all day is a different matter to having an office job where you might receive the odd five minutes of direct sunlight throughout the whole day.

In order to decide whether you want to wear an SPF, the questions you should ask yourself are:

  • How much time do I spend in direct sunlight?
  • How does my skin react to SPF ingredients?
  • How much do I mind having potentially harmful chemicals being absorbed into my body?
  • How strong is the sun in the location I am at?
  • Consider your distance from the equator and time of day – the closer you are to the equator and the nearer to midday, the stronger the sun’s rays. In the UK, we’re far from the equator but the sun is still strong between 11am and 2pm during the summer months.

Why does Sönd not include SPFs?

Ultimately, we believe that SPFs are not good for the skin. That’s why we don’t add them to our range. People can develop a negative reaction to SPFs, so we’ve left them out, allowing more people to benefit from our products.

We leave it up to our customers to decide whether they would like to wear an SPF, find an SPF that works for them and add it to their routine when they feel it’s required.

How can I protect my skin if I don’t wear SPF?

If we don’t wear an SPF, there are things we can do to protect our skin from the sun’s rays:

  • Avoid direct exposure to the sun, especially when it’s at its strongest between 11am and 2pm
  • Be aware that the sun can still burn the skin on a cloudy day
  • Wear a wide brimmed hat to protect the face, scalp and hair
  • Wear good quality sunglasses that have the CE Mark and European Standard EN 1836:2005 quality markers
  • Wear loose fitting, long sleeved clothing to provide a physical barrier against the sun
  • Stay well hydrated, especially if you’re drinking alcohol

What SPF should I wear?

Each one of us has different skin, and different skin needs. Wearing an SPF of 25 means that it will allow you to spend 25 times longer in the sun without burning, and this time is unique to all of us. The number rating, say SPF 25, refers to the protection it gives against UVB rays. The star rating you’ll also see on sun creams gives an indication of how well it protects against UVA rays, the higher the rating (up to five stars), the higher the protection.

Many of us have been on holiday with someone who will slap on the factor 15 and not burn all afternoon, whereas we sit there nursing sore, blistered skin after only an hour or so of sunbathing under the ‘protection’ of an SPF 25.

Different skin will react to different products and ingredients in different ways. Each person needs to find an SPF which works for their skin.

So we need to work out what our individual skin needs are and be sensible about it. If we decide not to wear an SPF, we must then take different steps to protect our skin.

Sönd skincare allows you to add an SPF if you’d like to, whilst allowing you the choice of going without. We think that’s the perfect solution.

Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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