At last, the sun is out and as we dutifully slather on the sun block, more and more of us are beginning to consider what it is we are actually applying to our skin.
For those who worry about chemical nasties, part of the problem with sun protection creams is the quantities we need to use - vastly different from a slick of moisturiser once a day. And with children, in particular, we are told to apply large quantities and regularly, so that what is in the creams becomes even more of an issue. Recent press reports about the possible carcinogenic effects of parabens and other petrochemicals has also heightened concern - leading to an increase in the popularity of more natural products.
"I think it's a real issue," says Margo Merrone, a pharmacist and homeopath, and the founder of the Organic Pharmacy. "Knowing what I knew as a pharmacist made me very ambivalent when I was pregnant, and afterwards when my baby was born, about some of the products available. Sun protection creams, because they are recommended for extensive use, are a case in point."
Sun protection creams work in one of two ways. The mainstream brands usually work by the topical application of chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light. The more natural products usually use light-reflective materials that deflect the ultraviolet rays. (Several of the mainstream brands use both methods.) The three main UV-absorbing chemicals - likely to be listed among a mainstream product's ingredients - are cinnamates, para-aminobenzoic acid and benzophenone. Because these chemicals are potent enough to absorb and render UV rays harmless, there is concern among some biochemists that they may also cause DNA damage in the skin, the very thing that sun-care products are designed to protect against. As well as these, mainstream brands may contain chemical preservatives, added to extend the shelf life of a product. While no conclusive link has been made between their use and any harm in humans, evidence that some chemicals can cross the skin barrier and accumulate in the body is a cause for concern to groups such as the Women's Environmental Network.
The products that rely on light-reflective material for sun protection use titanium, and in some cases aluminium as well. Current guidelines from the European Commission's scientific committee on cosmetic products suggest that these are safe for use in cosmetics and are generally considered a better alternative to UV-absorbing chemicals, not least because they remain on the skin's surface.
But are natural products as effective as the others? Jo Viner Smith, SunSmart campaign manager at the charity Cancer Research UK, says it's the SPF (sun protection factor) that counts. "Two products with the same SPF rating of 15 will provide the same protection against UVB rays, independently of what they are made of," she says. "Those products that have a star rating of one to five give an indication of protection against UVA rays. Many products that are broad-spectrum - designed to protect against both UVA and UVB - carry both ratings. We recommend an SPF of 15, which offers about 93 per cent protection, because this represents the best value between protection and price. If you double the SPF factor to 30, you only get an additional 3 per cent of protection, while SPF 60 only gives an extra 5 per cent of protection."
Cancer Research UK's SunSmart message is very much that your sun protection cream, although absolutely necessary when out in the sun, should be just one of the precautions you take, alongside avoiding exposure during the middle of the day, and covering up with hat and sunglasses - all of which should prevent you from burning. It is the damage to the skin through burning that creates the risk of cancer. Mild exposure, following the guidelines above, reduces that risk while allowing the benefit of some exposure to the sun - essential for the production of vitamin D, for example.
Merrone recommends a natural sun-care range called Lavera. "It was one of the first to use no petrochemicals or parabens, and no artificial colours or perfumes, while many of the herbal derivatives are from certified organic sources. The range also caters for children and sensitive skins - and has good after-sun products."
Rather than using lubricants such as liquid paraffin, propylene glycol (which is a constituent of antifreeze) or mineral oils, which are by-products of the petrochemical industry and very cheap for product manufacturers to buy and store, natural sun-care products such as Weleda, Dr Hauschka and Green People use vegetable glycerines, which are better suited to skin care and carry no known risk. And while some product manufacturers will use only token amounts of natural products, such as aloe vera or sesame oil, others use therapeutic amounts. Sesame oil, for example, is high in vitamins A, B and C, and essential fatty acids, as well as having a natural SPF of four. As long as it is cold-pressed from untoasted seeds, it provides natural, safe benefits to the skin.
But although it is important to protect yourself from burning - and consequently to reduce the risk of skin cancer - sun protection does not stop there. It is also desirable to prevent and repair the sun damage that causes premature ageing of skin. In both cases, you should rely on more than topical sun protection.
"It's also important to apply after-sun that contains antioxidants," says Merrone, "and to make sure that your diet is adequate in antioxidants, both of which help to protect the DNA of the skin's cells from free-radical damage by UV rays."
Foods that are high in the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E are recommended. Natural sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, avocados, leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, brazil nuts and endive lettuce. Betacarotenes, which the liver can convert to vitamin A, naturally protect fruit and vegetables from the sun and can do the same for us. Betacarotenes are found in red and yellow vegetables such as carrots, red peppers and squash, and also watercress. A study reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the combination of Vitamin E with betacarotenes further increased protection of the skin from the sun. Vitamin C is found in many citrus fruits and juices, and also strawberries, kiwi fruits and tomatoes.
To help with cell regeneration naturally, look for products that contain ingredients such as rosehip oil, which is high in vitamin A and essential fatty acids and has shown an ability to stabilise and reverse the oxidisation that occurs with sun damage; alpha lipoic acid, which is 400 times stronger than vitamin C and E; and green tea, which has effective antioxidant properties.
Taking an antioxidant supplement like Imedeen's tan optimiser, or the Organic Pharmacy's own brand, is also an option and can be helpful when levels of UV rays are increased. You can check daily levels via the Meteorological Office's website, which includes a UV index, and this information is often included in summer weather forecasts.
"Free-radical damage occurs from everyday metabolism and pollution, as well as exposure to the sun," says Merrone. "And it is the result of oxidisation in the cells of the body. Diets that are high in hydrogenated fats can be problematic, too, but antioxidants restrict the damage."
But in taking on board the need to apply sun protection cream - although, in fact, only an estimated 50 per cent of us do - the mistaken view has grown up that it somehow makes us invincible. And children, whose skin is much more vulnerable than adults', are even more at risk from this misapprehension. Although in recent years things have changed a little, there are still more than 2,000 deaths a year from skin cancer, and it's a rising number. The way to avoid becoming one of them lies in choosing the steps you take, including the skin-care protection you use, to minimise the risk. And if you want your baby or child to wear a hat in the sun - set a good example.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
The cosmetics industry has long used chemicals that, while they are approved for use, may cause problems for some.
The Organic Pharmacy details the following groups of ingredients as being of potential concern in topical application.
* Potential carcinogens, ie benzyl acetate, formaldehyde, hydroquinone
* Contaminants, ie DDT and related pesticides (found in lanolin), ethylene oxide (found in ethylated alcohols), arsenic and lead (found in coal tar dyes)
* Nitrosamine precursors, ie DEA-sodium lauryl sulphate, triethanolamine, pyroglutamic acids, bromonitrodioxane.
* Formaldehyde precursors, ie methenamine, quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea
* Endocrine (hormonal) disruptors, ie parabens, resorcinol, homosalate (HMS), dibutyl phthalateReuse content