Protect, clothes, smear: UV-resistant clothing and misunderstandings about sunscreen

The motto for skin cancer prevention is: ‘keep out, clothes, lubricate’. And in that order, says Dr. Arjan van Dijk, chairman of the Zonkrachtactieplatform (ZAP): “Be the first to ‘retend’, because you don’t have to solve a problem that you don’t look for. Then ‘clothes’, so if you do go outside, make sure sunlight doesn’t reach your skin. Only in the third instance: put your sunscreen on what is still sticking out of your clothes.”

If you’re wearing a white T-shirt and it gets wet, it has a protection factor of about 2, Van Dijk says. “Nobody buys a sunscreen with an SPF (protection factor) of 2. So a regular T-shirt is of little use for good UV protection.” Most shirts are woven. It is also possible to knit a shirt. “Then you think of goat wool socks”, says Van Dijk, “but this technique is advanced these days. When you knit gossamer yarns, you get a smooth, thin result where UV radiation ‘certified’ does not get through (factor 50 for UVB and UVA). If doctors want to offer a solution, then such UV-resistant clothing works fine. A leather jacket and jeans naturally also provide good protection against UV radiation without a certificate.”

Sunscreen and UVA filter

There are 2 challenges with sunscreen creams: the UVA filter is poorly regulated in the European Union (EU) and the protection factor (SPF) on the bottle ‘jokes’. What is going on? “UV radiation from the sun can be divided into UVA, UVB and UVC based on the wavelength. The latter doesn’t get through the atmosphere, so we’re rid of that. UVB radiation can lead to erythema and skin cancer. For that reason, sunscreens are focused on UVB suppression. It is now clear that UVA also has adverse health effects, including skin aging and the formation of radicals in the dermis, which can contribute to melanoma formation and immune suppression.”

A good sunscreen therefore extinguishes both UVB and UVA. A cream with a moderate UVA filter does not achieve the SPF on the bottle in the Netherlands, where the sun is low and the UVA share is high. This can be more than a factor of 2! The SPF is a measure of UVB suppression. UVA is therefore allowed to pass through that filter. “If you use a sunscreen that suppresses UVB, but allows UVA through, and you go out for longer in proportion to the SPF, you have received a multiple UVA dose,” says Van Dijk. “That is bad for your health.”

The EU already allows a UVA logo to be placed on a cream if the UVA is suppressed with a third of the SPF. Van Dijk thinks that is really too little. “A quarter of a century ago, Boots designed a quality system for UVA filters in England. A cream with 5 Boots stars has UVA attenuation that is 90% of the SPF. Such a cream provides universal, good protection. In the Netherlands such a cream is difficult to obtain and expensive, but in England and also in the EU country Ireland, cheap house brands with 5 Boots stars are available in every store. So they are well protected there. When you tell young people that UVA causes skin aging and that a five-star sunscreen is the best anti-wrinkle cream, this should appeal. Now the Dutch private labels.”

‘Sjoemel sunscreen’

If the sun is high, someone with pale skin in the Netherlands can spend 10 minutes in the sun without burning without protection. The protection factor on sunscreen creams does not mean that someone who has applied factor-50 can be in the sun 50 times 10 minutes. “It is seen that way,” says Van Dijk. “The SPF factor on the bottle does not appear to be a protection factor for consumers, but is based on an industrial layer thickness that is required to reliably measure a cream with a lamp.”

In order to achieve the stated protection factor, someone has to apply the thickness of a layer of peanut butter, Van Dijk says. “People apply half to a third of this thickness. Logical, because otherwise you empty a bottle with a family with 3 children per lubrication. People don’t: a thick coat doesn’t work with kids playing in the sand, and it’s expensive. People are considerably less well protected than the SPF indicates. With a real layer thickness of SPF-50 sunscreen you have a protection factor of 4 to 17. The latter resembles a factor of 15, which is said to be too little.”

That is why Van Dijk sometimes uses the term cheating sunscreen. “Actually, you shouldn’t mention the SPF on the bottle, but only the actual protection of the skin. Of all the health effects, a sunscreen should protect the worst against sunburn, while it is currently optimized for that. Erythema is your smoke detector; you should not disable it.”

Also read the other articles in this series:

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