What is the truth about sun cream?

A photo of Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance
03 August 2022
Next review due August 2025

With so many different types of sun cream available, it can be hard to know which one to pick. And all the myths about sun cream use don’t help either. Here I’ll explore the truth about sun cream and share the best types of sun cream for you to use.

Sitting on some beach steps

What types of sun cream are there?

There are two main types of sun cream, chemical and mineral (also known as physical). Chemical sun creams absorb harmful UV rays from the sun. This protects you from damage. Mineral sun cream is usually made from zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide, and unlike chemical sun cream, these block the UV rays rather than absorbing them.

Below are some common myths about using sun cream.

Myth 1: Sun cream causes cancer

This is quite a scary myth which may put you off using sun cream. But there is no evidence to show that wearing sun cream can cause cancer. In fact, about 90 percent of skin cancer cases are directly linked to too much unprotected sun exposure.

This myth came about because of concerns about some of the ingredients in regular chemical sun creams. The chemicals in sun cream can also be absorbed into your bloodstream, via your skin.

These chemicals have been approved as safe for use, and there is no good evidence to show they can cause cancer. If you are concerned, you could switch to a mineral-based sun cream that isn’t as easily absorbed by your skin.

Myth 2: Using sun cream makes me deficient in vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for good health. It can improve everything from your bone health to your immune function. Your main source of vitamin D is from the sun, but using sun cream won’t make you deficient in this key vitamin.

In countries in the northern hemisphere, such as the UK, it is recommended you supplement vitamin D3 from October to March, when the sun is less strong.

Myth 3: If there’s SPF in my makeup, I don’t need to wear sun cream

Unfortunately, most foundations and tinted moisturisers do not contain enough sun cream to protect you from sun damage. Your face is particularly sensitive to sun damage, and this can show up later in life as fine lines, wrinkles, and sunspots. So, use a facial sun cream with at least Sun Factor Protection (SPF) 30 before applying your make up. This will help to protect your skin from the visible signs of sun damage.

Which sun cream is best?

Mineral sun cream can cost a little more than chemical sun cream. But it has less ingredients if you are worried about the absorption of chemical sun cream. It may also be a better choice for the environment.

But, using either chemical or mineral sun cream is a much safer option than not using sunscreen at all, which carries a very serious risk of skin cancer.

Other things to consider when choosing your sun cream include:

  • The SPF factor – choose a sun cream with a SPF of 30+ to get enough protection. Choosing a product with 50+ SPF will offer you even more protection and is a good idea for children and people with fair skin.
  • Look for ‘broad spectrum’ sun creams, which will protect you from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light. Both UVA and UVB light can be harmful to your skin.
  • If you’re concerned about using sun cream on your face, or other delicate areas such as your lips, there are many different products available. For example, you can buy oil-free sun creams, which may suit you better if you are prone to acne or if you have naturally oily skin.
  • Is the sun cream water resistant? If you’ll be swimming or doing water sports in the sun, it’s important to use a water-resistant sun cream. This will last longer in the water. Most of these products still need to be reapplied once you’re out of the water, to ensure they are protecting you effectively.

How you store your sun cream also matters. This is because leaving it in direct sunlight for a long time can reduce its strength. You should also check the expiry date, as using leftover sun cream from previous years can be less effective at protecting you against sun damage.

Be skin cancer aware

Skin cancer is common and caused mainly when the sun damages the DNA in the skin. Some (but not all) of the signs and symptoms of skin cancer include:

  • A patch of red skin that doesn’t heal in 4 weeks
  • And ulcer, lump or sore which is scaly, pink, red, or white
  • A change to a mole, or a new mole

If you have any concerns about your skin health, see a doctor who can look at any skin changes and help you get the relevant treatment.

For more information on skin cancer, visit the British Skin Foundation’s website.

The British Skin Foundation is the only UK charity dedicated to raising funds for skin disease and skin cancer research. Their website contains handy ‘Skinformation’ pages for the public. Plus you can join their online community and ask questions, swap skin tips and share your experiences with others.

Nobody likes to think about being diagnosed with cancer. But our health insurance gives you personal cancer care with support at every stage of your treatment for as long as you have a policy with us. Learn more about our health insurance.

A photo of Naveen Puri
Dr Naveen Puri
Medical Director, Bupa UK Insurance

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