Sunscreen shutterstock-1658553181330
Dermatologists globally agree that every individual must wear a good sunscreen, not just to protect oneself from the heat, but also to minimise the obvious signs of ageing and keeping skin cancer away. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Are sunscreens a mere fashionable cosmetic investment or are they absolutely essential to protect oneself from the summer heat?

The moot point is, whether sunblock creams really do what they are fundamentally meant to, that is: Protect us from the harmful rays of the sun, or are their role overhyped?

Dermatologists globally agree that every individual must wear a good sunscreen, not just to protect oneself from the heat, but also to minimise the obvious signs of ageing and keeping skin cancer away. Dermatologists advise that one should use a good sunscreen to ensure protection from exposure to sun.

Can sunscreen really help?

The best way to avoid sunburns and sun exposure, say experts, is to wear an effective sunblock. So what’s the science behind sunscreens?

Dr Mona Ragab Mohammed Elmeligy

Dr Mona Ragab Mohammed Elmeligy, specialist dermatologist at Tajmeel Royal Clinic, Dubai, explains: “In the UAE and this region, everyone must use a sunblock or sunscreen cream when stepping out to prevent skin damage,” said Dr Elmeligy. She continued: “The ultraviolet rays of the sun — both, the A and B variety — have a damaging effect on the skin. While UVA can cause premature ageing with damage to the skin surface, UVB can cause deep sunburns and lesions on the skin that can turn out to be malignant. People must use sunblock every two to three hours and use enough cream to cover the entire surface of the face and other parts of the body that are exposed to sun.”

Dr Elmeligy said that she clearly saw a difference in the quality of the skin texture of those patients who do not use sunblock from those who do. “When I attend to my patients, I can see a clear difference in the ageing process of the skin in those who do not use sunblock. Their skin has more wrinkles and pigmentation.” Ultraviolet damage also happens more in Caucasian women with pale skin. Pale skin has less melatonin and is susceptible to sun exposure. Some of these women also trigger further sun damage with the use of tanning beds to get that perfect tan.”

She cautioned: “In this part of the world, sunblock creams are absolutely essential and recommended to prevent sun exposure that can result in premature ageing and ultraviolet damage resulting in skin cancers.

How sun block creams work?

Dr Fiona Caslin

Dr Fiona Caslin, specialist, Family Medicine, Aesthetics and Anti-ageing at the Dermalase Clinic, Dubai, explained how sunblocks work: “There are two components to most sun block creams. One is a physical block, using inorganic compounds such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which deflect the sun’s rays.” She continued: “The other kind of sunblock contains organic chemical compounds such as oxybenzone or benzophenone that absorb the UVA and UVB rays, break them down into heat that is released from the skin surface without being absorbed by the body.”

What does the sunscreen contain to prevent sun exposure?

Dr Elmeligy added: “These two functions might be in two separate creams or integrated in one. The benefit of the physical sunblock cream is that one can step out immediately after applying it. It has very little side effect, except that it is not properly absorbed by the skin and manifests as a thick white layer on the skin surface.”

Dr Caslin explained the method of use. “In case of the organic compound sunscreen, an individual needs to wait for at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. It has a short-term impact on blocking UVA rays that can destroy the upper layer of your skin, such as collagen, and trigger premature ageing. On a long term, this sunscreen is essential to protect the deeper damage caused by sub-burns, oxidation and skin lesions that can lead to cancers,” she added.

What is the Sun Protection Factor (SPF)?

The SPF factor in these creams can range anywhere from 15-100. This is a calibration of the potential of the cream to protect from exposure. Dr Caslin clarified: “No sunscreen is 100 per cent effective in preventing damage from sun exposure. SPF is a calculation about the duration and intensity of sun protection that the cream can provide in a single application. For instance, SPF 15 will provide 93 per cent protection and SPF 30 about 97 per cent protection, while SPF 50 and 100 can give up to 98 or 99 per cent protection. Therefore, the way the formula is worked out is this: The power of SPF is multiplied by 10. For instance, SPF 15 gives protection for up to 150 minutes (10x15) in a single application, while an SPF 30 cream will provide protection for 300 minutes (10x30) in a single application.”

Both Dr Caslin and Dr Elmeligy emphasised the need to frequently apply sunscreen. There is a need to apply the cream generously every two to three hours, if a person is working outdoors, in order to ensure proper cover, adding that those with paler skins require to be more frequent and regular with sunscreen application. “Paler skins with lesser melatonin production require a regular and more generous application as a lack of melatonin means more potential for deeper penetration of UVA and UVB rays, leading to sun burns and collagen destruction,” said Dr Caslin.

Fear of skin cancer

According to dermatologists, more than 90 per cent of skin cancers are caused by excessive sun exposure. The World Health Organisation (WHO) pegs the spike in the incidence of both non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers to sun exposure.

WHO estimates that between 2-3 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 132,000 cases of melanoma skin cancer occur globally every year. One in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer, according to Skin Cancer Foundation Statistics.

Ozone layer depletion

WHO attributes this to the depletion of the ozone layer. The top protective filter in the atmosphere has thinned resulting in easy exposure to ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB) in the atmosphere. The earth continues to lose more and more of its protective layer. It is estimated that a 10 per cent decrease in ozone levels will result in an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma cases.

At a glance
What to look for in a sunscreen?
• Check ingredients to determine if it is a physical sunblock, a chemical sunscreen or a combination of both.
• Check SPF strength. For maximum protection, it is advisable to use a cream with an SPF between 50-100 in this region.
• Read the method of application carefully to understand the frequency of application if outdoors and the time lapse necessary after application of the cream, before stepping out into the sun, for it to be effective.

Dos and don’ts to avoid sun exposure:
• Always use a good combination formula of organic and inorganic sunblock, with a minimum SPF of 50 in this region.
• Never step out of your home without an effective sunscreen that has been applied at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.
• No sunblock cream provides total protection. So make sure to use an umbrella or cap, even after applying sunblock while stepping out.
• Everyone, beginning with the age of six months, requires a sunblock.
• Individuals must make sure to be well-hydrated before stepping out and also apply sunscreen at least every 2-3 hours if out in the sun for long periods.
• Avoid the excessive use of tanning beds as the artificial tan can also cause UV damage and trigger premature ageing of skin or skin lesions.
• Go in for a skin check-up periodically to guard against deep sunburns or lesions that may turn cancerous.