Is it any wonder those of us in Britain have a love affair with the sun that is so profoundly troubled? Back in diurnally grey February, just as we were thumbing the travel sections and plotting our blue-sky escapes, a fresh batch of health guidelines issued by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) warned we’ll be toast if we stay unprotected in the sun for more than 10 minutes. Ideally, we should cover up almost completely; at the least we should smother our bodies with six to eight teaspoons of sunscreen every two hours to avoid joining around 13,500 cases of malignant melanoma – the deadliest skin cancer – diagnosed in the UK each year. A tan is a sign that skin has already been damaged and is striving to save itself.
But we knew that, didn’t we? For more than 25 years, media campaigns have warned us over and over that our love affair with the sun is a doomed one. Perhaps this sheer volume of information – hardly light reading under one’s beach umbrella – has contributed to caution fatigue just as much as that perfectly chilled glass of Château d’Esclans to hand. Moreover, the very guidelines drawn up to protect us seem to obfuscate the message further: last year a Royal Pharmaceutical Society survey found that four in five adults failed to grasp that an SPF rating doesn’t indicate protection against all sun damage.
So, the pass notes. SPFs shield against “burning” UVB rays. Do the maths: if your skin burns within 10 minutes, SPF 15 will give you 150 minutes’ protection. Yet research shows that most of us apply less than half the requisite 2mg per sq cm (more than half a teaspoon each for arms and face; just over one for each leg and front and back of torso). Erring on the safe side, the American Academy of Dermatology simply recommends at least SPF 30 for fair skins and no less than SPF 15 for darker, applied every two hours.
As for “ageing” UVA rays, these penetrate skin further and damage proteins and DNA. Unlike UVB, UVA is present year-round, even on gloomy days. Confusingly, there is no standard for either measuring or labelling UVA ratings. Symbols on bottles indicate the ratio of UVA to UVB protection only – the most widely used UVA circle symbol indicates a ratio of 1:3. Dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams believes the most reliable rating system is PPD (persistent pigment darkening). “The higher the rating, the more comprehensive the protection. Good broad-spectrum protection would provide an SPF of at least 30 and a PPD ratio of at least 15,” Williams says. The system is becoming more common – new this year is Bioderma’s genius Photoderm Aquafluide SPF 50+ (£13.50 for 40ml), which has a PPD rating of UVA24 and an innovative “dry touch” cream-to-powder texture.
Since there is no such thing as a total sun block (even SPF 50 is estimated to absorb only 98 per cent of UVB rays), many dermatologists recommend a safety blanket of antioxidants. “In addition to degrading collagen and elastin, ultraviolet light increases free-radical generation and oxidative stress in skin, which significantly contribute to ageing,” says Dr Williams. She recommends wearing a high-grade antioxidant serum such as SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic (£129 for 30ml) under sunscreen. Strengthening the skin’s barrier function further boosts its immunity to UV. Institut Esthederm’s Derm Repair Restructuring Serum (£57 for 30ml) is designed to prepare skin over two months prior to sun exposure.
Dr Marko Lens, a dermatologist and surgeon specialising in skin cancer, has incorporated a silken blend of natural antioxidants and lipids with high skin affinity into Zelens Body Defence Sunscreen SPF 30 (£55 for 125ml). Its zesty essential-oil aroma is quite seductive and, as Dr Lens points out, pleasure is key to regular use. “If you have thick, white stuff that is difficult to spread, leaves residue and is a chore to reapply, you won’t do it. But if textures are soft, silky or velvety and smell good, you’ll comply.” The refreshing floral scent and dry-touch finish of Vichy Idéal Soleil Invisible Hydrating Mist, SPF 30 and SPF 50 (both £18 for 200ml) also make reapplying a breeze. Should we still need nudging, there are apps for that. Wearable fitness tracker brands such as Jawbone and Fitbit have inspired a rash of tech-y sun sensors, such as the Netatmo June bracelet ($129) and SunSprite clip ($100). French pharmacy brand La Roche-Posay has developed My UV Patch (free), a stretchable, inch-square, membrane-thin sensor with photosensitive pigments that change colour with UV exposure. Take a photograph of the patch and the My UV Patch mobile app calculates your UV intake and when it’s time to reapply.
Textures that make suncare feel as good as skincare are especially relevant should you wish for a face that glows in a good way. Sisley Super Soin Solaire Tinted Sun Care Youth Protector SPF 30 (£103 for 40ml) is a matte, blemish-blurring, water-resistant base with a range of shades borrowed from Sisley’s most popular foundations. La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted Dry Touch Gel SPF 50+ (£18 for 50ml) keeps shine well in check. Meanwhile, for all-over security, ZO Skin Health Oclipse Sun Spray SPF 50 (£49 for 118ml) incorporates fractionated melanin – a version of the skin’s own protective agent – to shield against high-energy visible (HEV) light, now thought to cause weak barrier function and chronic inflammation. This blue/violet “photo” light, as well as being beamed in from sunrays, is emitted by LED lights and screens on mobile phones, iPads and laptops.
As if we needed something else to fret about, the paradox is that scrupulous sun protection carries its own health warning. NICE also recently highlighted the dangers of vitamin D deficiency, caused by a chronic lack of sunlight on skin. Although vitamin D is present in certain foods such as eggs and oily fish, the body requires UVB to synthesise the bulk of its vitamin D needs. Deficiencies are increasingly linked to health risks that include osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, immune suppression, muscle fatigue, depression and some cancers. Ironically, there is some evidence that high levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream can both aid recovery from and help prevent malignant melanoma. In theory, exposing bare skin for 10-15 minutes daily between March and October should produce enough vitamin D to see us through winter. Yet given the hazards of repeated sun exposure, NICE recommends at-risk groups – including the office bound – should take oral supplements. The question that then arises is, but at which dose?
“Our biggest problem is that we don’t know for certain what ideal [vitamin D] levels are, since there are so many variables,” says Dr Hiva Fassihi, a dermatologist at St John’s Institute of Dermatology at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. The colour of your skin, your location, lifestyle and even weight all determine your vitamin D status, she explains. Although an ongoing European study is working to establish guidelines, when testing blood to reveal vitamin D levels, blood serum norms vary with NHS trusts throughout the UK. In general, anything between 50 and 100nmol per litre is regarded as optimal, and below 25nmol per litre as deficient.
Meanwhile, vitamin company BetterYou has worked with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust and St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College to recommend an adult dose of 1,000IU (25µg) per 25kg body weight daily for its popular DLux 1000 vitamin D sublingual sprays (from £7 for 15ml). “In our experience, using a daily oral spray, a deficiency can be easily turned into an optimal level within 10 weeks,” BetterYou’s founder Andrew Thomas says. Nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton, founder of Wild Nutrition, advocates eating vitamin D-rich foods such as eggs, oily fish, liver and dairy alongside taking Wild Nutrition Food-Grown Vitamin D (£10 for 60 capsules).
We could, of course, consider cautiously exposing our bodies to the sun. A controversial new sunscreen, Solar D, claims to allow enough UVB rays through to our skin to make vitamin D without sacrificing sun protection. Currently available in Australia, the makers of Solar D are hoping to launch in the UK this summer if EU certification is completed. Yet dermatologists are sceptical that this is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for. “I see absolutely no point in exposing skin when you have little idea what that will achieve,” says dermatologist Dr Nick Lowe. “Why bother when the answer is to take a daily supplement? Dr Williams agrees: “I cannot recommend deliberate sun exposure as a safe means of getting vitamin D.” She does however recommend twice yearly blood tests from either a GP or a dermatologist to check that vitamin D levels are neither too low nor too high.
This tricky dilemma, pitching vitamin D against safe skin, hinges on what is called the minimal erythema dose (MED), an assessment of the most sun a person’s skin can take without burning. Highly individual and varying according to skin colour, time of day and geographical location, the Catch 22 is that you actually have to burn in order to know your own MED. The paler your skin, the faster you’ll burn, yet it’s unlikely many of us have ever realised the precise moment we’re caught, let alone checked our watches. “Besides, maximum redness appears 24 hours after exposure, making it difficult to judge if you’ve overdone it or not,” warns Dr Williams.
Dermatologists are traditionally wary of “one size fits all” guidelines, yet the need for plain-talking advice is as clear as day. Dr Lowe, a native of Cheshire who alternates between his dermatological practice in London and teaching in California, is characteristically pragmatic. “If you must have a sun-induced tan, get some gentle colour before 10am and after 4pm when it’s less damaging. It will also last longer because skin won’t shed as it does post-damage,” he says. “When I’m in California, I swim before 10am and put on sunscreen afterwards. Out and about, I wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. After 4pm I’ll allow myself to go swimming again and put the top down on my vintage convertible,” he smiles. He also takes 2,000IU (50µg) of vitamin D daily, year-round.
Meanwhile, our penchant for at least appearing sunblessed remains undiminished. “A tan is like a secret weapon in your wardrobe. You look better, you stand better and your clothes seem better,” says Jules Heptonstall, tanning and skin finishing expert at St Tropez, the UK’s bestselling self-tan brand in a market worth £60m at retail. According to global information company NPD Group, sales of self-tanning oils – the industry’s latest innovation, which experts say give the most even, natural glow – boomed by over 2,000 per cent last year.
“Dry oil formulas treat skin – hydrating, soothing and helping to repair damage – as they tan,” says Alyson Hogg, founder of Vita Liberata, the preferred tanning range in hotel spas such as those at George V Paris and Ritz-Carlton. “The tan eventually fades with no patching, streaking or snakeskin effect.” New this year is Vita Liberata Marula Dry Oil Self Tan SPF 50 (£40 for 100ml), a silken, slow-release formula that, claims Hogg, lasts up to four times longer than regular self tans. Heptonstall selects self-tan textures according to effect: oil for a sensual, burnished glow or a discreet matte finish to blur imperfections. He recommends buffing self-tan evenly into the skin in long, confident strokes with a St Tropez Tan Applicator Mitt (£5). His latest pasty skin go-to is St Tropez Gradual Tan Everyday Tinted Body Lotion (£15 for 200ml) – the instant golden-rose glow is more forgiving on lily-white limbs than yellow-toned tans. Similarly, Legology Sun-Lite Sheer Lingerie for Legs (£36 for 100ml) is based on an original uplifting formula for hot, heavy legs; the tocco del sole effect flatters easily, then washes off.
That flush behind the bronze of a real tan may indicate burn in reality, yet it’s also the cosmetic coup de soleil that mimics a genuine tan. The hint of pink in the new shades of Guerlain’s Terracotta Bronzing Powder (£36 for 10g) – 00 Clair Blondes and 04 Moyen Blondes – gives a convincing flush to cheek apples, brows, shoulders and collarbones when dusted over a naked or self-tan base. Tom Ford’s Skin Illuminator Fire Lust (£54 for 20ml) is a shimmering, peachy-pink gel-crème perfect for highlighting all types of golden.
The clinching touch lies, however, in the mind. To be believed, a tan needs to smell like sunkissed skin – not rancid biscuits – and St Tropez may have finally cracked it. Instead of attempting to mask the biscuity whiff of tanning agent DHA (dihydroxyacetone), the brand recruited perfume house Givaudan to create a fragrance, now in most of its products, that evolves alongside DHA. Tuberose and rose evoke beach-bound euphoria, while soft musks and woods – suggestive of sunbaked skin – linger as the tan intensifies. “We researched ingredients with emotional triggers to capture an invigorating holiday freshness,” explains Dr Anne Churchill, Givaudan’s head of technology for Europe. Meanwhile, seasonal eaux have that giddy but lazy holiday feeling bottled. Tuberose, amber and coconut in Tom Ford’s Private Blend Soleil Blanc (£145 for 50ml EDP) capture it perfectly, while bergamot, ylang ylang and soft musks in Guerlain’s Terracotta Le Parfum (£49 for 100ml EDP) soothe and uplift. With their hints of lotion on warm, salty skin, scents such as these conjure more innocent days in the sun and encourage us to believe that when clouds gather, a tan from a bottle really is what the doctor ordered.