Saving Face – My Sunbathing U-Turn

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the things I’ve changed my approach to the most as I’ve got older is protecting my skin – especially on my face – from the sun, to the point where I never wear a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) on my face lower than 30, and for most of the year diligently apply a good slathering of factor 50 under my make-up. And tanning my face – no chance! I sit in the shade or wear big sunglasses and a hat.

Get me – don’t I sound like a goody-two-shoes?! Well, unfortunately this hasn’t always been the case, and how I regret it!

I know that although I have fairly good skin, it’s my genes I have to thank for that and those deeper lines around my eyes wouldn’t be appearing for some years if I’d listened to my mum’s warnings about sunbathing when I was younger, which I became obsessed with.

As a teen my skin had a tendency to break out in spots, mainly on my chin. Looking back, they weren’t too bad at all and certainly couldn’t be described as acne, but for most people in their teens and early 20s, appearance is everything and I was no exception.

I discovered that sunbathing not only cleared my skin, but a bit of colour made me look healthier and feel loads more confident. As my circle of friends consisted mostly of surfers, long beach trips were plentiful and I rarely bothered to apply sunscreen to my face in a bid to maximise drying out that oil and therefore preventing spots (of course I’ve since learned the opposite is true and your skin produces more oil to compensate!) In the winter months, or when we weren’t on one of many hot and sunny overseas trips, I completely over-indulged in sunbed use. (Just the word ‘sunbed’ makes me cringe now.)

I think it’s probably accurate to say I did become addicted to using sunbeds. On a bleak winter’s day there was nothing more satisfying than toasting myself on electric beach, feeling the ‘sun’ on my face and getting warmed through to the core. I confess there were weeks when I’d use a sunbed every day and gradually the strength of these increased as salons competed to have the latest, most powerful beds or sunshowers with special intensive facial panels. It’s alarming how good such a bad thing can feel!

sunbed

(That’s not me by the way!)

We’re talking about the early 90s here and gradually knowledge about the dangers of sunbed use began to either increase, or just became more widely known, although I persisted with my habit but just felt a little bit more guilty each time I had a session. When you’re younger, feeling invincible, all the fuss about skin cancer and premature ageing just doesn’t seem to apply to you.

For me, the penny dropped through a couple of incidents around the same time. After another intense three-week sunbathing trip to Australia to celebrate the Millennium, I really noticed ageing around my eyes when I got back to the UK (which also coincided with hitting 29 and entering into my last year as a 20-somehting). A small red flag began waving somewhere in the back of my mind.

Ironically, my real wake-up call came courtesy of the woman who had just started working in the tanning salon I went to. At the time she was probably in her 40s, and on Day One in the job had a pale but ok, just slightly aged, complexion. Over the next few months she clearly indulged in the perks of the job, after all it was one of the best salons in town, with the fiercest, most intense kit and mind-boggling selection of tan-intensifying lotions and gels which made your skin feel like it was on fire before you even got under the UV lamps. Before long, she was a deep mahogany colour, which did look a bit OTT, but the most alarming thing was the texture of the skin on her face which had wrinkled and sagged. I don’t know if it had thickened or thinned, but it had transformed into resembling an old leather handbag. She looked terrible.

This red flag could not be ignored.

I did have to wean myself off using sunbeds which I genuinely found quite difficult and it took around two years from deciding I was going to stop using them. It sounds silly, but I had relapses and would go for months without using a sunbed and then go on a spree and book blocks of 10 or so sessions and cram them in. There was clearly something physiological going on for me, perhaps the release of serotonin (the so-called ‘feel-good’ hormone) I’m sure I got each session.

Eventually I decided there was no use being ‘beige’ so I might as well not tan at all, and fortunately fake tans were fast becoming far more convincing, less smelly and more acceptable (see my Fake Tan review). Plus, the sunbed backlash was really on in the media with all sorts of horror stories, although I’m embarrassed to say it was the vanity of ageing that drove my change of habit and not good sense based on the risk of developing skin cancer (and if I get through this life without succumbing to that I will consider myself extremely fortunate).

I’m now a real advocate for protecting skin from the sun, but particularly for taking care of your face every day by using a broad-spectrum SPF cream (which means protecting against UVA and UVB rays. It’s easy to remember that UVA rays Age your skin and UVB are the ones that Burn it).

Many moisturisers and foundations come with a built in SPF of 15 which does save time and effort but I really don’t think this is enough if you’re serious about protecting your face from damage. A factor 30 cream blocks somewhere around 96 per cent of UV rays and factor 50 around 98 per cent, but you must use a generous amount or the effectiveness is significantly reduced. (And if you’re out in the sun, reapply during the day.)

UVA star ratings

 

UVA rays (the ones that penetrate deeper into your skin and cause ageing) are around all of the time, even when it’s cloudy or if you’re indoors. (Do you sit near a window all day in your office or drive a lot? Then beware, windows do cut out the UVB rays responsible for burning, but not UVA!) So, when you choose an SPF cream for your face, also look for the UVA rating, which is usually depicted by stars in a circle. A five star ‘ultra’ rating is what you should be aiming for. (I think Boots introduced this system but it’s not been adopted by all brands yet.)

There’s also more awareness now of Infrared A-induced skin aging, which penetrates even further than UVA, although I’ve not found too much information on this or tested any products which specifically deal with this light frequency.

The Skin Cancer Foundation advices the sunscreen we use should include some combination of the UVA-blocking ingredients: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, ecamsule, and oxybenzone, which essentially means both chemical and physical blockers, so you’re covering all bases really.

The physical blocks (mainly zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the ones which can leave more of a chalky residue, but can be much better for you if you have sensitive skin and are therefore more likely to get a rash in reaction to the chemical ingredients.

A lot of finding the right product for you comes down to trial and error, but that can be both frustrating – and expensive. But, I cannot stress how important protecting your skin from the sun is, especially if you want to keep wrinkles at bay for as long as possible! (And combining simple prevention with some of the great corrective treatments available today – reviewed elsewhere on this blog – we can hang on to our 30s-selves that bit longer and make sure we keep ageing well right into our 50s and beyond.)

To help you pick through the vast choice of sun protection creams for daily use, read my REVIEW of five leading products here: review link

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