Sun protection: What’s important, what’s nonsense?

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Is sunburn dangerous – and how much sun do I get in the shade and water? There is a lot of ignorance about sun protection, and skin cancer rates continue to rise. The fact is, we need to protect ourselves better than we think.

How important is sun protection in everyday life?

Important! Because we don’t get the majority of our sun does during the few weeks of vacation, but in everyday life. But this is often underestimated: a survey of 2500 families by the University of Erlangen, for example, showed that only 30 percent of those surveyed considered sun protection for their children to be just as important in everyday life at home as on vacation.

The development of skin cancer figures fits in with this: According to WHO estimates, two to three million new cases of light skin cancer occur worldwide every year, and around 250,000 new malignant melanomas (black skin cancer). It has long been clear that UV radiation from the sun is the number one environmental risk factor for skin cancer.

Are sunburns dangerous?

No. However, in the case of sunburns, the damage is apparent: According to a study by the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island, five sunburns before the age of 20 are enough to increase the risk of skin cancer enormously. It is 80 percent higher than people who had no sunburn in their first 20 years. Even a slight reddening of the skin counts as sunburn, even if it does not hurt.

However, UV radiation, which slowly but steadily irradiates us over the years, also plays a role in melanoma development. This means that the skin does not forget UV radiation – the radiation exposure increases throughout a lifetime. For this reason, specialist organizations such as the German Cancer Research Center recommend sustained and intensive protection against UV radiation – especially for children and young people.

Solarium visits increase the risk.

The same also applies to artificial UV radiation, such as in solariums. According to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, you are developing black skin cancer doubles if you regularly visit a solarium when you are under 35.

Too much UV radiation is also dangerous for our eyes. Acute effects of too much sun on the eyes include corneal inflammation, conjunctivitis, and photochemical retinal damage. Excess UV radiation can lead to lens opacity in the long term, known as cataracts.

Are UV-A and UV-B rays equally dangerous?

There are three types of UV radiation: UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C rays. They differ in their wavelength – and thus penetrate the skin to different depths. UV-C beams, the UV rays with the highest energy, are retained by the earth’s atmosphere and do not reach the world.

Of the UV-B rays, up to ten percent reach the earth’s surface. When the ozone layer is disturbed, the proportion increases. This is why the risk of skin cancer is exceptionally high in Australia, where the ozone layer is skinny. UV-B rays are short-wave and responsible for sunburns. This high-energy radiation damages the DNA molecules of the skin cells in our outermost skin layer (epidermis).

UV-A rays penetrate deeper into the skin

The longer-wave UV-A radiation reaches the earth largely unimpeded. UV-A rays have less energy than UV-B rays but penetrate deeper into the skin – right into our dermis. Here they produce free radicals that age the skin. And: UV-A rays cause an immediate pigmentation of the skin via a transformation of the skin pigment – the skin tans.

Until a few years ago, it was believed that they were less dangerous because their skin-reddening effect was up to a thousand times weaker than that of UV-B rays. In the meantime, however, it has been established that UV-A rays also cause damage to the genetic material of our skin. Therefore, UV-A and UV-B radiation are classified as “clearly carcinogenic to humans,” according to the Cancer Information Service.

Is pre-tanned skinless at risk?

UV-A and UV-B rays stimulate our skin to build up its protection – it forms the pigment melanin. The melanin pigmentation absorbs other UV rays and prevents the radiation from damaging the deeper layers of the skin. This buildup of the body’s UV protection is called pre-tanning. Therefore, tanned skin is a kind of defensive reaction of the body against solar radiation.

However, tanning does not protect us as much as we think. For people with skin types I to III, like most Central Europeans: inside are, the protection provided by self-tanning is roughly equivalent to sunscreen, with a sun protection factor of 1.5. People with dark skin type IV can only achieve a maximum sun protection factor protection of 2 by pre-tanning. Therefore, all sun protection recommendations apply to tanned people as well.

How dangerous is the spring sun?

“We see the light, we feel the heat, but there is no sensory organ for UV radiation. This makes it difficult to correctly assess UV intensity,” explains Prof. Breitbart from the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Dermatologische Prävention (ADP). Even sunny spring days with mild temperatures can be accompanied by solid UV radiation. That can be just as intensive in April as in the high summer.

Therefore experts advise a thoughtful contact with the spring sun. The skin must slowly get used to the sun and be protected from too intense UV radiation. The UV index from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) provides information on the daily intensity of UV radiation.

Sun protection is recommended for UV index values of 3 and above.

A scale of 1 to 11 shows the highest possible UV radiation intensity daily. Of course, the time of day influences UV intensity – it is highest at midday, from 11 am to 3 pm. But also the geographical latitude, the total ozone concentration in the atmosphere, the cloud cover, and the altitude of a place determine how intense the UV radiation is.

Sun protection measures are already recommended at a UV index value of 3. In the winter months, from October to March.

Is sunscreen the best sun protection?

Sunscreen is not considered the sunscreen of choice by many national and international professional societies because No sunscreen covers the entire spectrum of UV rays. It is therefore not sufficient as sole protection. They say it is even more critical to use the sun in moderation, avoid the sun during midday, and wear clothing covering the body. Not to forget Headgear and sunglasses with UV-400 labeling.

How are sunscreens adequately applied?

What many may not realize: It takes about 30 minutes for their protection to take effect. Therefore, it is essential to apply sunscreen early. However, studies have shown that most people use sunscreens too thinly. To achieve the promised level of protection, about 2 milligrams of cream should be applied per square centimeter of skin, advises the Cancer Information Service. That’s equivalent to about six teaspoons for the body of an average adult. With sunscreen sprays, you should always spray twice to ensure protection.

In addition, a sun protection factor of at least 20 is recommended, and at least 30 for children and people with fair skin. A higher protection factor than 50 to 60 is not chemically possible, which is why in Europe, there is only the designation 50+.

The higher the sun protection factor, the longer the protection.

The sun protection factor (SPF), known abroad as the Sun Protection Factor (SPF), indicates how much longer you can be exposed to the sun with sunscreen lotion without getting sunburned. The higher the value, the longer the protection. In concrete terms: if you were to blush after 10 minutes without sunscreen, for example, and use a cream with SPF 30, your sun protection would be extended to 300 minutes.

And: Reapplying sunscreen does not prolong protection – it only maintains it. In our example, the skin would still need a sun break after 300 minutes of sun, preferably after a third of the calculated time, according to the unanimous recommendation of the experts.

In addition, when choosing our sun protection factor, we should bear in mind that the self-protection time of our skin is reduced when traveling to southern countries and in the mountains because the UV radiation there is more intense. So here: choose a higher sun protection factor!

Is waterproof sunscreen waterproof?

Caution! Because: The label “waterproof” is given to a product if half of the original protection is still present after twice 20 minutes in water. Sweating can also impair the protective effect. Stiftung Warentest’s advice for “waterproof” sunscreens: always reapply generously after bathing and drying off.

Incidentally, since 2017 the foundation no longer tests sunscreens for their water-resistance because this terminology lulls consumers into too much security. Instead, such products even receive point deductions in the advertising claims.

How well do shade, water, and clothing protect?

We should avoid the sun altogether during midday and otherwise stay in the shade. But even under trees or umbrellas, we should remember: Due to the reflection of the ambient radiation, we are still exposed to up to 50 percent of the UV radiation. So sun protection makes sense here, too.

Clouds, on the other hand, offer no protection from UV radiation. They partly absorb the radiation, but on the other hand, they also reflect it. In extreme cases, the UV radiation on the ground under a partly cloudy sky can even be more potent than under a cloudless sky.

Dark clothing protects against UV radiation.

Even water does not protect against UV radiation; quite the opposite: water can even intensify UV radiation – and even at a depth of half a meter, about 40 percent of the UV radiation still penetrates. Therefore: Don’t be misled by the cool water and think about sun protection even in the water.

On the other hand, clothing is proven protection against the sun’s rays. However, this does not work with all fabrics: Light-colored cotton, which we especially like to wear in the summer, is permeable to UV rays. The rule of thumb is the darker the fabric and the more densely woven, the higher the protection against the sun.

Does sunscreen lead to vitamin D deficiency?

Practically, no. However, if we were to always spend time outdoors with only high sun protection, our bodies would produce too little vitamin D. Because sun rays are necessary for our body to produce vitamin D. It is essential for the utilization of nutrients. It is necessary to utilize minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, responsible for building and maintaining bones.

Infants and toddlers are also given vitamin D supplements in consultation with their doctor because they should not be exposed to sunlight until the second early summer after birth.

Sun protection does not prevent vitamin D production

For everyone else, the following applies: two to three times a week, uncovered and without sunscreen, “expose your face, hands, and arms to half of the minimum sunburn-effective UV dose” – in other words, half of the time,e you would otherwise get sunburn unprotected. A person of average skin type would be about 12 minutes at a high UV intensity (UV index 7).

The alliance also advises against “intense, non-medically controlled UV irradiation (sun or solarium) for vitamin D formation.“ This means that adequate sun protection does not stand in the way of sufficient vitamin D production. Our body can store vitamin D so that a healthy person has enough vitamin D available even in winter – from October to March. From spring onwards, the vitamin D store can be reloaded

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