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A burning issue all year long

I HATE to say it but we’re looking at the end of summer. It may seem like it only started but already magazines are full of autumn coats, boots and beauty trends. So while it may soon be time to put away summer outfits, there is one sunshine-related item you should hold onto: SPF.

Most people are aware of the damaging effects of the sun's UVA and UVB rays and take steps to protect their skin in sunny weather.

But the rays are present all year round, even on the cloudiest of days, and increasingly skincare professionals are drawing attention to the need to protect skin whatever the season.

Why? There are a number of reasons. On the cosmetic side, daily exposure to UV rays ages skin; more than 80pc of what we perceive as the signs of ageing (wrinkles, age spots, etc) are caused by sun exposure. It can also result in hyperpigmentation (where skin becomes uneven in colour due to the over production of melanin) and skin sensitivity. Then, of course, there is the very real threat of skin cancer.

According to the Irish Cancer Society, one in every eight men and one in every 10 women will develop skin cancer by the age of 74 and 66pc of Irish people have a higher risk of developing skin cancer because of their skin type. But the most striking statistic is that 90pc of all skin cancers are preventable. (You'll get more info and advice on www.cancer.ie/sunsmart/)

UVA are the ageing rays, the longer wavelength penetrates into the dermis (the living layer of skin) and we don't feel them at all. UVB rays are shorter and have a higher intensity so we feel it as they burn the epidermal tissue. This diminishes collagen levels which results in a loss of stretch and elasticity in the skin.

Janette Ryan, of La Roche-Posay and Vichy, explains: "The UV rays present throughout the day vary in intensity. UVA rays are present from sunrise to sunset all year round and are not blocked by clouds, whereas UVB rays are partially blocked by clouds. UVB rays are more intense in Ireland from April to September. People can check the intensity of the UV rays by logging onto Met Eireann's daily UV index/sunburn warning index."

HOW HIGH SHOULD YOU GO?

For most people in Ireland, a moisturiser with SPF15 should be adequate for occasional sun exposure during the day. But if you are deliberately sunbathing, even if you're just sitting out at lunchtime on a sunny day, you should be using a proper sun protection product with SPF25 or higher.

The consensus among skin experts seems to be that SPF15 is enough for every day use. The International Dermal Institute points out that an SPF15 screens 94pc of UV rays while an SPF30 screens 97pc. Their thinking is you're doubling the amount of chemicals on your skin for just a 3pc improvement in UV screening.

However, there are lots of product options available, so you can wear SPF30 or even 50 every day if you so choose. In the past, such high-factor creams were just not practical to wear day to day. Many had a thick consistency and made the skin look chalky and you could forget about applying foundation on top of them! But formulations have improved immeasurably now; Elizabeth Arden, ROC and Darphin have all recently launched new moisturisers with SPF50 protection.

You can also buy SPF products designed to be used under make-up or mixed with moisturiser (try Chanel, Clarins and Dermalogica) although keep in mind this lowers their level of protection. It's worth remembering that a chemical sunscreen will give you about two hours protection only. A physical sunscreen, such as titanium dioxide, should -- if you're not perspiring or rubbing your face -- protect you for most of the day. So if you apply an SPF moisturiser in the morning as part of your skincare regime, you should be protected for the day.

Don't forget about your hands and chest, as they're some of the first areas to show signs of ageing. While they're a bit more difficult to find than their facial moisturiser counterparts, choose hand creams with built-in SPF (The Body Shop, Matis and La Roche-Posay have them).

ON HOLIDAY

If you are heading off on an end-of-summer holiday, Boots' Mike Brown says: "You shouldn't rely on daily skincare with SPF as this is only designed for occasional 'unplanned' sun exposure rather than the full onslaught of a summer holiday. Choose a good-quality sun product and go for higher protection (at least SPF25). You should also ensure that you have protection against UVA rays."

He adds: "If you are prone to prickly heat or irritation maybe opt for a physical sun block which will have titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to reflect the UV light away, rather than a chemical one which absorbs UV energy, transforms it as heat and expels it through the skin."

SUNBEDS: YES OR NO?

And lastly, a word on sunbeds. While Health Minister Mary Harney continues in her quest to have sunbeds banned outright (and a bill has been drafted to outlaw the selling or renting of them to anyone under 18) the answer to the above question is simple: "Never use sunbeds," says Janette Ryan. "In July 2009 a report published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer showed that the risk of skin cancer is increased by 75pc when sunbed usage starts under the age of 30.

"The intensity of UV rays from sunbeds can be anything up to 15 times stronger than the Mediterranean midday sun. Beware of tanning beds because they use UVA rays. A UVA tan does not help protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces colour and a false sense of protection from the sun."


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