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Sunscreen, SPF and UV Rays

In this article we’ll look in more detail at Sunscreens and SPF, UV Rays and what they do, and how to protect yourself and your family from the sun.

Sun Safety

This article has been medically approved by Superintendent Pharmacist Shilpa Shailen Karia, MRPharmS. - GPhC Reg No: 2087328

Whenever you are going to spending long periods of time in the sun, you should be wearing sunscreen. The sun’s rays can accelerate the signs of ageing and sunburn increases your risk of cancer. Even on a cloudy day in the UK, the sun is causing damage to your skin. Read our article below for more information on sunscreen, UV rays and some sun safety tips.

Sun Safety Tips

Sunscreen should be one of the ways you protect from the sun, not the only way.

Make sure you:

SPF and Star Rating

When deciding which sunscreen you should use, you should look at the SPF and the star rating.

Sun protection factor (SPF) shows how the sunscreen protects against UVB, while the star rating shows the protection from UVA. UVA protection may also be indicated by the letters UVA in a circle. This means the product meets the EU standard.

SPF rating are from 2 to 50+, with 50+ being the strongest form of UVB protection. If you multiply the time it takes you to burn with no sunscreen on by the SPF factor, you have how long you can now be in the sun for. For example, if you normally burn after being in the sun for 30 minutes, SPF 30 sunscreen would theoretically provide 5 hours of protection.

However, this is a relative measure under laboratory conditions. The NHS and the Skin Cancer Foundation both recommend reapplying sunscreen every 2 hours.

Star Ratings are up to 5 stars in the UK. The higher the star rating, the better the protection.

Sunscreens that offer both UVA and UVB protection are sometimes referred to as providing ‘broad spectrum’ protection.


UV Rays are found naturally in sunlight and are split into two main categories: UVA and UVB.

UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin while UVB rays are what cause you to burn.

UVA rays are responsible for long term skin damage like wrinkles, sagging, dullness, and skin discolouration. They can even cause immune system suppression.

UVB rays not only cause painful sunburn, they can directly damage the DNA in your skin cells. This is what causes skin cancer.

What SPF do I need?

What time of day it is and how long you’ll be exposed to the sun for are both factors you need to consider when Choosing an SPF. If you’re making the most of a bright, sunny day the higher the SPF the better.

If you are pale, or have red or blonde hair, you are likely sensitive to the sun. You should consider using SPF 50. The same applies for if you can sometimes tan, but usually you burn.

If you have olive or dark skin, you skin is likely to be more resilient to sun damage. You still need to protect yourself from UV rays which can still cause damage and cancer, but SPF 30 should be enough.

How to apply sunscreen

As a guide, adults should aim to apply:

  • 2 teaspoons of sunscreen if you're just covering your head, arms and neck
  • 2 tablespoons if you're covering your entire body while wearing a swimming costume

If you plan to be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice. Once, 30 minutes before going out, and again, just before going out.

If sunscreen is applied too thinly, the amount of protection that it offers is reduced. If you’re worried that you might not be applying enough SPF 30, you could try using a higher SPF.

Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck, ears, and head (if you have thinning or no hair). Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally and frequently including straight after you’ve been in water (even if it’s “water resistant”), after towel drying, sweating, or when it might have rubbed off.

As mentioned above, it’s also recommended to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, even if it claims to be ‘once per day’, as the sun can dry it off your skin.

Does Sunscreen Expire?

Yes! Sunscreen should have the expiry date printed on the outside of the bottle. This may be a month and year, but is more likely to be a period-after-opening symbol or PAO symbol. This symbol is an open cosmetics pot along with the number of months or years after opening a product should be discarded. As a general rule of thumb, sunscreen should be replaced every 12 months.

If you don't remember when you opened the sunscreen, there are some ways you can tell if it has expired. If it has a different texture, colour, or smell to when you first bought it, it should be discarded and replaced.

If you use expired sunscreen, it is likely to not work as well as it should. In the short term this may lead to sunburn, but it can also contribute to long-term skin damage as it won't be reflecting those harmful UV rays.


Extra care should be taken to protect babies and children, as their skin is much more sensitive than an adults. Damage caused by repeated sunlight exposure could lead to skin cancer developing later in their life.

Children under 6 months should be kept out of direct, strong sunlight.

From March to October in the UK, children should:

  • Cover up with suitable clothing
  • Spend time in the shade, particularly from 11 am to 3 pm
  • Wear at least SPF30 sunscreen
  • Sunscreen should be applied to any areas that aren’t covered by clothing. This includes the face, ears, feet and backs of hands.
  • To ensure they get enough Vitamin D, all children under 5 are advised to take Vitamin D supplements.
  • Suitable Clothing and Sunglasses

    It is important to wear appropriate clothing and sunglasses during sun exposure.

    You should consider:

    • A wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck and ears
    • A long-sleeved top
    • Trousers or long skirts in close-weave fabrics that do not allow sunlight through
    • Sunglasses with wraparound lenses or wide arms with the CE Mark and British Standard Mark 12312-1:2013 E

    Without proper eye protection on a bright day you can get a painful, temporary burn to the surface of your eyes, similar to sunburn. Reflected sunlight from snow, sand, concrete, water, and artificial light from sunbeds is particularly dangerous.

    Moles and Freckles

    If you have a lot of moles or freckles, your chances of developing skin cancer could be higher than average.

    Take extra care not to burn and use shade, clothing, and sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Keep an eye out for any changes to your skin, including:

    • A new mole, growth or lump
    • Any moles, freckles or patches of skin that change in size, shape or colour
    • If you notice the above, tell your doctor immediately. Skin cancer is much easier to treat if it’s found early.


      Sore skin can be soothed by sponging cool water over any burnt areas. You also might want to consider applying an aftersun cream or spray to soothe and moisturise your skin.

      Painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen will help to ease the pain and reduce the inflammation caused by sunburn.

      You should stay out of the sun until all signs of redness have gone.

      If you feel unwell after getting a sunburn, or the skin swells badly or blisters, you should seek medical help.