MR PORTER’s Foolproof Guide To Sunscreen, SPF And Safer Tanning
Illustrations by Mr Nick Hardcastle
Skin is the most exacting of record keepers. Every late night, glass of rioja and stressful deadline is logged in its fine lines. For proof, you need only look at Mr Keith Richards, a man whose face is the ultimate ledger of – how can we put this? – a life well lived. But of all the things that can leave their mark on a man’s skin, the sun is the most troublesome.
It’s customary to extol the virtues of fake tan over a real one, but let’s face it, few things ruin a man’s credibility quite like a pair of streaky orange calves or the tell-tale biscuity smell of self-tanning lotion. And while pale may well be interesting, it doesn’t show off a crisp white cotton Oxford shirt quite like a tan does.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a “safe” or “healthy” suntan. Even the most modest exposure damages cellular DNA and causes premature ageing, but then there’s no such thing as 100 per cent healthy drinking or risk-free walking down the street, either. So, while acquiring a little colour the old-fashioned way will never be entirely danger free, there are a few steps you can take to at least avoid the indignity of looking like Hellboy. All you need is a plan.
01. How the sun damages your skin
Safe sunning requires a basic understanding of ultraviolet radiation. There are two kinds of rays that penetrate the Earth’s ozone layer: UVA and UVB. UVB causes superficial damage, such as sunburn, and is responsible for non-melanoma cancers. It also plays a pivotal role in the production of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate and strengthens bones (there is growing evidence to suggest that vitamin D3 can also help prevent chronic diseases and fight infection by regulating the genes that control the immune system).
UVA is an insidious beast. It penetrates deep into the skin where it encourages cells called melanocytes to start producing a brown pigment known as melanin. Even though we tend to regard this effect as a “healthy” tan, melanin is the body’s defence mechanism against burning, a way to prevent UV rays from penetrating deeper into the skin and wreaking havoc with DNA. As an added bonus, UVA rips into collagen and elastin supplies, ageing you faster than you can say “group one carcinogen”.
Just because you haven’t burned (UVB), it doesn’t mean you’ve escaped the invisible wrath of UVA. It is for this reason that you need to invest a broad-spectrum sunscreen that covers both kinds of UV radiation. Be aware that the ubiquitous sun protection factor (SPF) rating pertains to UVB rays only.
02. Heed the red flags
Looking like a cross between Elmo and Darth Maul is not a particularly strong look. Redness, along with the symptoms listed below, are surefire signs that the body’s inflammation response has kicked in and that you need to seek shade sharpish.
First comes a flushed face, the result of dilated blood vessels. Then there’s the dehydrated and itchy-tight skin, often accompanied by an unshakable internal heat. Last but by no means least comes peeling, a sign that damaged skin cells have jumped ship in an effort to protect the rest of the body.
Rather than wait until you’re completely fried, simply press your thumb hard against your skin at some point during your sun lounging. If it leaves a white mark that promptly turns red, pre-empt any further damage, go indoors, take a shower and slather yourself in aftersun.
A good aftersun does far more than simply cool the skin. Next-generation formulas can repair cellular damage and rebuild the skin’s protective barrier. Think of aftersun like a course of antibiotics. Start using the cream or gel a couple of days before sun exposure so your skin builds up natural defences and is adequately armed before the onslaught of UV exposure. As with most things, don’t wait until it’s too late.
03. Choose the correct level of SPF
SPF, unlike the literary works of Ms Jilly Cooper, is not just for the beach. And not all sun creams are created equal – you might need different types for different scenarios or for different skin types.
As a general rule, the SPF figure is intended to help the wearer determine how long they can stay in the sun before they need to reapply. It doesn’t have much to do with the strength of the product per se. To work out how long your sunscreen will last, simply multiply the amount of time in minutes that it takes you to burn (without any protection) by the SPF on the bottle.
For example, let’s say you have a pasty Anglo-Saxon complexion and it takes you roughly five minutes in the sun before you turn a fetching shade of crimson. Despite your genetic shortcoming, you are well equipped with an SPF30 sunscreen. Five multiplied by 30 equals 150 minutes’ protection. That is, of course, provided you apply enough of the stuff in the first place (see below) and don’t wash it off in the pool within the first half an hour.
Like height or baldness, how your skin reacts to the sun – and thus which sun cream you should go for – is largely determined by genetics. A shortage of melanin in people with fair skin and Celtic complexions means skin burns easily, whereas a man with olive skin will probably rarely burn in the sun and will develop a deep tan. With darker skin, tanning may not be the objective, but you should still use an SPF – an oil or spray, which doesn’t leave a residue on the skin.
For those with a paler complexion, a tan may not be worth the trouble, especially since a study published in the International Journal Of Cancer suggests men with blond or red hair have triple the chance of developing malignant melanoma, while those with blue eyes are 57 per cent more likely to suffer from the most deadly form of skin cancer. Maybe the streaks and biscuity smell aren’t so bad after all. Still, if you’re still drawn to the light, here are the products you should be considering.
04. The best SPF for your body
Non-negotiable, a good can or bottle of SPF for your body should be the first thing you pack for your holiday after your passport and swim shorts. If you’re spending time sunbathing, you need to be fully covered. Apply your chosen product at least 15 minutes before slumping on the lounger and top it up regularly and after you swim.
Next, it’s time for a big decision: spray or lotion? A spray is the easier (and faster) way to get full-body coverage. Soleil Toujours makes organic sunscreen that is kind to your skin and the environment and has a wide spray so that you can reach your back with ease if you’ve no one to help you out. The fine, easily absorbed mist will leave your skin with that rich glow everyone tends to be going for. Also look to Aesop Protective Body Lotion, a reliable SPF50, which is enriched with vitamin E and will last for up to four hours.
The main error with suncare products is not applying enough of them. Dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams, founder and medical director of the Eudelo clinic in London, estimates most people apply less than half the recommended amount and so hardly ever reach the stated SPF. She suggests applying half a teaspoonful of sunscreen to each arm and the face/neck/ears and just over one teaspoonful to each leg and to the chest, stomach and back, liberally and frequently. “You should always reapply after swimming, too, because 85 per cent of a sun product is removed when towel-drying,” she says.
05. The best SPF for your face
While you can spray a body SPF on your face, you’d be much wiser to use one that’s specially formulated for the purpose (as we keep telling you, sun-induced wrinkles are real). Working the same way as a standard moisturiser, a product with added SPF will still nourish your skin, but will also protect it from harmful UVA and UVB rays without clogging up your pores, leaving you with a greasy sheen or making you smell of coconuts. A good facial SPF product incorporates the sort of things you would expect from a moisturiser, including ingredients with anti-inflammatory and nourishing properties. Dr. Barbara Sturm Sun Drops, which are SPF50, can be easily mixed into your everyday moisturiser if you have dry skin, or worn alone if you’re on the oilier side.
For sensitive skin, look for something full of antioxidants, such as Malin + Goetz SPF30 Face Moisturizer, which is suitable for all skin types and contains green tea to soothe skin.
06. SPF extras
You’ll also want to keep an eye on your lips and apply an SPF lip balm every few hours when you’re in the sun. Salt & Stone Lip Balm SPF30 contains beeswax to keep skin nourished and stop it drying out, as well as non-nano zinc oxide for broad-spectrum protection against the sun.
It might not be obvious, but your hair is also prone to sun damage, so to keep it in good nick, invest in products with built-in UV protection, such as Patricks M3 Matte Finish Pomade. As well as giving your hair some relief from the sun, it’ll also ensure you remain well-coiffed on the beach.
07. How to boost your sun protection in other ways
“Research has shown that antioxidant vitamins are crucial to defending skin from the ageing and burning effects of damaging UV light and the harmful free radicals that sun exposure creates,” says Ms Sally Penford, education manager of The International Dermal Institute. Protect cells from the inside by loading up on antioxidant-rich fruit such as blueberries, strawberries, plums and cherries. You might want to consider taking a lycopene supplement as well. A study by Newcastle University and the University of Manchester concluded that this phytochemical, found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables, increased skin’s natural protection against sunburn by 30 per cent.
08. How to make your tan last
A tan is likely to be something you’ll want to hold on to for as long as possible. But given that skin renews itself every 30 days or so, that’s easier said than done. To ensure your tan lasts, avoid using face or body scrubs (they speed up cell turnover – the last thing you want) and make sure skin is adequately hydrated by slathering on a body moisturiser such as Aesop Geranium Leaf Body Balm. By preventing dryness and flakiness, it’ll instantly improve the look of your tan, too. If the tan on your face is fading, apply a little TOM FORD Bronzing Gel. Unlike fake tans, it washes off easily and is fragrance and streak-free, so is perfect for temporarily boosting your colour.
Oh, and resist the urge to peel the skin off a sunburnt arm. “Peeling after sunburn is your body’s way of getting rid of damaged cells that are at risk of becoming cancerous,” says Ms Penford. “Peeling skin away will simply expose the vulnerable new cells beneath too soon.”