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Comparing sunscreens

Comparing sunscreens

Gone are the days when sunscreen was an afterthought on a scorching day, something you'd pick up from the airport Boots pre-holiday. In 2022 we're more serious than ever about sun protection.

According to Cancer Research, 86% of melanoma skin cancer cases are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation (radiation emitted by the sun) and 86% of cases are preventable. Using sunscreen regularly is reported to reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer) by around 40%. It's no wonder, then, that sunscreen is big business. Mintel reports that the UK's sun care market is predicted to grow in value to £228.5 million in 2022, while brands like Aldi have all unveiled sunscreen products this summer.

The type of sunscreen you opt for; a spray bottle, a solid stick or a lotion; is largely down to personal preference. But ahead of a warm summer, cosmetic chemists and dermatologists are making their concerns known regarding a handful of very popular versions. Is aerosol spray sunscreen any good?

Cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong went Instagram-viral recently for her take on aerosol spray sunscreens; the ones where you hold down the button and the SPF comes out as a continuous mist. "The problem with these, is that they contain lots of 'propellants', which are liquidised gases," said Michelle. Most aerosol sunscreens contain these gases, which push the product out and are often referred to as propane, butane, isobutane or hydrocarbon on the label. But Michelle cites a recent Australian study which found that a standard aerosol sunscreen can be around one third to 60% propellant. In other words, you're actually getting about a third less SPF than the bottle says, as Michelle explains that SPF tests are done on the sunscreen without the propellant.

Pointing to a full-size bottle of aerosol SPF on her screen, Michelle adds that some propellant also lands as liquid on the skin, so it's very hard to tell how much actual sunscreen you've applied. Put simply, you might not be using enough sunscreen at all — and this can be really dangerous in the sun.

The comments under Michelle's post prove that lots of people have faced issues when using aerosol sunscreen in the past, such as very painful burns. Dermatologists agree that they might not be giving the best protection. "[Aerosol spray SPF] is definitely not as good as creams because coverage is very hit-and-miss," explains Dr Walayat Hussain, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. Dr Hussain says a lot of this depends on how far you hold the spray from your skin and how long you spray over a particular area. But because the liquid gases feel like sunscreen, the amount of sunscreen you're getting can be quite misleading.

Whether you apply the sunscreen inside or outside is also a matter of concern. "Apart from the issues with the amount applied, wind is a problem," Michelle tells R29. "There's actually another study on spray sunscreens and wind which found that you lose 32-79% of the sprayed sunscreen in 10kph wind, and 28-93% for 20kph wind. These are considered light and moderate wind conditions." In other words, most of it might miss your skin entirely if the weather conditions aren't right.” Is there any benefit to aerosol spray sunscreen?

Aerosol spray sunscreens tend to be much lighter and dry down quicker, so makeup wearers and those reapplying regularly tend to favour them over creams, which need rubbing in. In Dr Hussain's professional opinion, aerosol spray sunscreens are better than nothing. "Also, some people don't like the feeling of creams on their hands, which makes them greasy when they're at work, for example. So by using a spray they can avoid this issue." Michelle seconds Dr Hussain's thoughts on application. "If you apply enough sunscreen, sprays should be fine. It's just that it's harder to judge if you're applying enough with an aerosol spray." Michelle would recommend a pump spray instead and suggests measuring out how many sprays you need. "You can spray into a quarter teaspoon measure," she advises, and recommends being extremely careful not to inhale the sunscreen. Is powder sunscreen any good?

Aerosol sprays aren't the only sunscreens to come under scrutiny this summer. Small enough to pop in a handbag and easy to use on the go (particularly if you're reapplying throughout the day), countless beauty brands are bringing powder sunscreen to market. But Michelle and Dr Hussain aren't too keen. "I think powder sunscreens are misleading," says Michelle. "The data on them shows that you would need to apply a lot of powder for sufficient protection." Another of her Instagram posts shows just how much SPF powder you would need to dust over a small portion of skin to protect it — and it's a lot. "Powder sunscreens aren't a good way to protect your skin from the sun," Michelle captioned the post. "I definitely wouldn't recommend powder as your primary sunscreen — and I don't think they work well even as a top-up."

Dr Hussain seconds the dubious nature of powder SPF. "I definitely think the amount needed to actually gain the alleged SPF is very misleading," he says, but "this is also the case with suncreams." His general recommendation in the UK is to use sunscreen from March to September, with individual variation based on your skin type. "If someone is outside in the summer, we usually suggest top-up every two hours due to evaporation. But if you've been in water and towelled down afterwards, you should reapply then." Do you need to reapply sunscreen throughout the day?

This depends on a few factors. "Top-ups are only really necessary if you're getting a lot of sun exposure, and you're moving around a lot," Michelle explains. "If you're sitting in an office all day, and you're only getting a bit of exposure during your commute, you'll probably still have sufficient protection from your morning application — assuming you applied enough the first time."

If it's winter, and you're heading to work when it's dark and coming back home when the sun has gone in, reapplication isn't really necessary. It's all about how much sun you're getting, whether it's summer or winter. For example, you could be sitting outside on a cold winter's day when the sun is shining. In which case, it makes sense to top up your sunscreen.

As for the right amount of sunscreen, half a teaspoon is usually recommended for your face and neck combined, and for each arm. Then one teaspoon on each leg, the front of your torso and the back of your torso. Is there a difference between expensive and cheaper sunscreen?

​Powder and aerosol sunscreen tends to be a little pricier than those housed in squeezy tubes or spray bottles. This might be because the packaging is a little more advanced, but according to Dr Hussain there is no benefit in buying expensive sun creams. "They are not superior," he reveals. "What people need to look for is broad spectrum (UVA and UVB coverage)."

What does that look like? Many labels carry a five-star UVA rating, which Dr Hussain rates. The higher the star rating, the better the protection. He also recommends an SPF of 50 and above. "It's important to find one you like the colour and the feel of," he explains, "because if you don't like it, you won't use it." He explains that with creams, you get a better idea of how much has been applied. "In my opinion, they are better than sprays."

The Vintage Avenue Team x

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