Concerned that members of the public were failing to clearly understand the labelling of sunscreen, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society conducted a survey into how much the public understood the system. They found that only 8% of the 2000 people surveyed, knew what the SPF of a product measured and that other factors would indicate the full protection of a product. The resulting confusion caused them to write up the information which could be understood by either the pharmaceutical industry or consumers.
Exposing the skin to sunlight, which includes UV light, increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Rates of malignant melanoma and non-malignant melanoma (skin cancer) are rising in the UK and in other countries. In order to avoid developing skin cancer, it is recommended that people follow guidance which is designed to protect them.
Although sunscreen was originally designed to protect against UVB, which causes the superficial damage to the skin, scientists now understand more about the sun’s rays and it is now recommended that protection is provided against both UVA and UVB. UVA causes deeper damage to the cells of the skin. Sunscreen that can provide protection against both types of UV rays can be known as ‘broad spectrum’ and will carry both a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) and a UVA logo. Tanning is the skin’s response to the damage of sun exposure and needs to be treated as skin damage.
While the SPF factor seems to double, this is not an indication that the sunscreen offers twice the protection, but the amount of protection is increased. The more likely someone is to burn when exposed to the sun, the higher the amount of SPF should be in the sunscreen they use.
Sunscreen in the UK, which protects to an agreed minimum standard against UVA, should carry a logo of the letters, encased in a circle. UK sunscreens use a star system to indicate the level of protection, but this is not used in all countries. People are recommended to use a sunscreen with the minimum SPF of 15 and UVA protection of 4 stars by NICE.
They should apply the product liberally - about a size of a golfball is enough to cover an adult - and ensure that all exposed skin is covered. They also should follow instructions closely if the product is meant to be a single application product, and note that if they have been in the water, sweating or have towelled off, that further applications are likely to be needed, applied every two hours during sun exposure.
People are also recommended to stay out of the sun between 11 and 3, wear a sun hat and be in the shade when the sun is at its hottest. They should be protected by clothing, including sunglasses to protect the eyes. It is recommended that babies and young children are key out of direct sunlight at all times.
Some people take medication that increases sensitivity to sunlight. They should take extra precautions to stay out of the sun, as they may find that only a short time in the sun may cause sunburn.
Royal Pharmaceutical Society: Guide to Sunscreen