Sunburn – the ugly truth

Remember my stern lecture a few weeks ago on the need to wear sunscreen. Well guess what? The kids are sunburnt.

Khalessi is aghast. From the way she’s talking, we are complete failures as parents. We may as well hand them over to the care of social services right now. I take a more relaxed view. The sunburn isn’t too bad –  a few red patches on their arms and legs. And it’s not that we haven’t tried – we’ve made them wear UV protection sun vests in the pool and have plastered them with Factor 50. You do your best – but it always rubs off in places.

I guess my generation has never been too clued up on this kind of thing. When I was a kid my folks taught me that the  prime function of sunscreen was to help you turn brown. It was a bit like basting a turkey. Back then, Factor 6 was what you started with (if you were cautious) and you swiftly moved down to Factor 2 as the holiday progressed. In fact, once you had a bit of tan, you often dispensed with the sun cream altogether. Now that I come to think of it, I think my mum had a portable tanning lamp in her wardrobe so we could irradiate ourselves at home as well. Those were the good old days when cowboys smoked Marboro, with never a thought to the lung cancer diagnosis that was awaiting them down the line.

I can tell Number Two is becoming unnerved by this whole sunburn business so I try to reassure her that her life isn’t completely blighted.  “A sun tan helps protect you from burning,” I explain. “You go red at first but then you go brown because your body starts producing more of a chemical that protects you.” But I’m acutely aware that I’m winging it here. How much do I really know about the perils of excessive sun exposure?  So I’ve done some research and it turns out that Khaleesi is right. A lot of what I’ve been saying is complete bollocks. So here’s what I’ve learnt.

There is no such thing as a healthy tan

A suntan is a sign of skin damage. When your skin cells are damaged, the body tries to protect itself from further damage by producing more of a chemical called melanin. That’s what makes it turn darker. But the extra protection gained from this melanin is only the equivalent of a factor 2 or 3 sunscreen. My apologies Number Two for giving you such duff advice on this.

What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?

UVB –  Nasty little buggers that cause most of the redness of sunburn. They damage the surface layers of the skin and are linked to cancer. The most dangerous time is from 10am till 4pm.

UVA – These are the rays that give you a tan – but they also age the skin and cause wrinkles. Scientists used to think they were less harmful – but more recently they’ve been linked to cancer as well.  Unlike UVB, they can pass through glass. You are being bombarded them fairly constantly during all daylight hours, even when it’s cloudy.

What is the SPF rating on sun screen mean?

Sun Protection Factor – SPF – gives an indication of  the amount of protection sun creams offer against UVB radiation. If your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (10minutes x 15.) A factor 50 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun for 500 minutes (10 mins x 50) This is a rough estimate – it depends on skin type.

What about the star rating?

You’ve got to remember that the SPF figure for a suncream only tells you how effective it is in blocking out UVB rays. Some high factor creams are great at this – but are not so good at stopping the UVAs so your skin still gets damaged. There’s a star rating for how much UVA a sun cream blocks out. The NHS recommends going for a cream with a least a four star rating. A lot of products will have a 5 star rating, meaning it blocks out 90-100% of UVA.

Why does Groucho turn a nutty brown colour in the sun and Khaleesi turns lobster red ?

Dermatologists have something called the Fitzpatrick system for classifying skin types.

Type 1 – white skin, fair hair, usually blue eyes, freckles  – always burns, never tans – think Ed Sheeran

Type 2 – white skin, blue, green or hazel eyes – usually burns, tans with difficulty – think Angelina Jolie (I often do)

Type 3 – light olive skin, dark hair, brown or green eyes – burns with long exposure but tans easily – think Demi Moore

Type 4 – brown skin, Mediterranean type complexion – burns after long exposure – think Halle Berry

Type 5 – dark brown skin, rarely burns, tans easily – think Beyoncé

Type 6  – very dark brown skin – never burns – think Usain Bolt

So there you have it. My idiot’s guide to sunburn and sun protection. Will it stop us getting burnt in future? Probably not, but I’ll no longer be able to use ignorance as an excuse.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of sunburn, here’s the results of my review of three budget sun creams that according to Which? magazine do a perfectly decent job of protecting you from the sun.


Nivea – the trusty old blue bottle felt OK, not too much greasiness. It has only a 4 star UVA protection though while the other two have five stars

Aldi’s Lacura – did feel a bit thick and syrupy on the skin but great value for money. Maybe the SPF Factor 30 would have felt better.

Altruist – Really impressed by this – felt good and great protection. Only available in a limited range of sizes from Amazon but would certainly order up more of this.

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