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Should I sunbathe? What should I be careful of?

Should I sunbathe? What should I be careful of?

 For some years now, as a result of the destruction of the ozone layer, excessive exposure to the sun has had a negative effect on the health of our skin.  For that reason it is very important to know how best to protect ourselves.

“Notorious” UVR (ultraviolet radiation)

- Ultraviolet radiation (UVR), which is part of solar radiation, is separated into UVA, UVB and UVC, (depending on the wavelength).

- UVA accelerates skin aging because it affects the cells which produce elastin and collagen and which are responsible for skin’s elasticity and youthful appearance.

- UVB makes us tan and, after prolonged exposure, makes skin go red and burn. If this happens repeatedly it can cause skin cancer.

- Before the well-known "ozone hole" had been created, the damaging effect of ultraviolet radiation was limited as ozone absorbed a high proportion of it. . The levels of ultraviolet radiation today are much higher than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

- Sand, cement, water, and snow reflect as much as 85% of solar radiation, which means that the effect of ultraviolet radiation becomes more intense.

- Clouds only reduce the intensity of ultraviolet radiation by 20-40%, depending on how thick they are.

- The effect of ultraviolet radiation is cumulative, meaning that the total amount of radiation we receive during our lifetimes or all the times we have been sunburnt may play a significant role in the development of skin cancer. Because of this, it is very important to protect children to minimise the chance of them developing skin cancer later on in life.

Why do we tan?

Tanning is basically the body’s way of protecting us from exposure to solar radiation. The change in skin colour is due to cells in our skin called melanocytes.
The sensitivity of each individual depends on their skin type, their skin's ability to produce melanin after exposure to the sun and the intensity of the radiation it receives.
The lighter the skin is, the more likely it is to go red or burn if it remains unprotected under the sun. This is because it has less melanin.

Prevention - Protection against the sun

- The best protection is to avoid excessive exposure to the sun. Avoid sunbathing for a long time or limit it to a few minutes, especially if you have light skin.
- Avoid exposure to the sun from 11.00 am to 4.00pm, when the radiation is very intense. 
- Our essential allies in the summer are sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat - with a wide brim if possible to protect the face, ears and neck better.
- If you are at the beach during the dangerous hours in terms of sun radiation, use sunscreen with a high protection index, and reapply it frequently.

How to choose the right sunscreen

- Sunscreens reduce the intensity of ultraviolet radiation that affects the skin. There are several types of sunscreen, for instance those that provide protection against UVB alone, or those that absorb both UVA and UVB.
- If you have sensitive skin or photodermatitis, choose hypoallergenic sunscreens after consulting your doctor.
- The SPF: in practice the sun protection factor tells us how much longer we can stay in the sun without burning. So, someone who would turn red in 10 minutes when unprotected, can stay in the sun for 150 minutes without going red if using a sunscreen with a protection factor of 15 (10 x 15). After that, he/she would have to reapply the cream.
- The higher the protection factor, the greater the protection it gives to the skin. For this reason you should choose sun tan cream on the basis of how sensitive your skin is to the sun's radiation.
- Do not forget that eyes and lips are sensitive areas and usually need a higher protection factor.

Protect children because they are most at risk!

- Because the effects of ultraviolet radiation are cumulative, children are the group that needs the greatest protection.
- If you have small children, avoid the sun between 11.00 am and 4.00 pm. It is better for them to enjoy playing in the late afternoon, without being exposed to the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.
- Use suitable hypoallergenic sun cream for children, following the advice of a specialist.
- Make sure they wear a hat while playing.
- Keep your children safe from potential burns by reapplying their sunscreen if they go into the water.
- Preferably, infants under 6 months of age should not be exposed to sunlight at all. It is not clear whether sunscreen should be used at this age, so avoid using it and consult your doctor. It is also good for babies to be protected from the sun reflecting from the water, sand or cement (round swimming pools), even when they are in the shade.

Despite all that, do not let anything get in the way of your care-free summer holidays! Equip yourself with your sun shade, sunscreen and hat and enjoy exploring new beaches - without worrying!

Relax and enjoy your holidays!

Eliza Ferekidou
Dr. Biologist
Health Services Research Centre