The sun has got his hat on, hip-hip-hip-hooray! A lovely, jaunty song, but one that does absolutely nothing to make people aware of the risks of the sun’s rays. To be fair, sunburn and skin cancer are tricky to fit into a rhyme scheme.
Fortunately, most of us already know that there is some risk to our skin when going out in the sunshine, so we cover up with a hat and long sleeves, avoid going out between 11am and 3pm when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest, and regularly(-ish) apply sun cream. But how do you choose between the many different sun creams available? By using this explainer and sticking to our picks of the best sunscreens, lotions and blocks available, that’s how.
How To Choose Sun Cream
To ensure this sun cream advice is the best available, we checked in with the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD).
What does the SPF rating mean?
It stands for sun protection factor, and it provides the simplest measure of how good a cream is in protecting against sunburn. The SPF rating only refers to how well the sun cream protects against UVB rays, not UVA (we’ll explain in a second). The SPF rating runs from two to 50+, with anything up to 14 counting as low protection, 15 to 29 medium, 30 to 50 high and 50+ very high. The BAD recommends an SPF of 30 as a minimum.
What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
The easy way to remember the difference is to think of the B in UVB as standing for burn (although it doesn’t stand for that), because UVB rays are the ones responsible for sunburn and raising the risk of skin cancer. UVA rays aren’t harmless, however – they lead to sun-induced skin ageing, so let’s say the A in them stands for ageing (it doesn’t). As mentioned above, the SPF rating refers to the amount of protection from UVB rays a product offers, while the UVA star system indicates the protection from UVA. What’s the UVA star system? Way ahead of you.
What’s the UVA star system?
You’ll see this on the packing for sun cream, which should have a UVA star rating from zero to five. Now this is where it gets a little tricky, so pay attention. The rating refers to the protection offered relative to how well it protects against UVB. So five-star UVA protection might not be all that great if the SPF is very low. The UVA protection might be good relative to the UVB protection, but neither is especially impressive. For adequate protection, aim for an SPF of 30 and a star rating of four of five to ensure protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
What ingredients should I look out for?
There are two main types of sun cream. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UV radiation and expel it as infrared, while physical sunscreens contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect the UV radiation away. Both are effective, but chemical sunscreens are thinner and so easier to apply, while physical sunscreens don’t block your pores so much, which can help avoid the spots that are a common, unfortunate side effect of using sun cream.
Can you rely on a water-resistant sunscreen after swimming?
If a sun cream says it is water resistant you can be sure it is – products bearing that label are tested with two 20-minute-long intervals of moderate activity in water. However, these products are not towel-resistant, so if you rub yourself down after being in the water you’ll need to reapply your sun cream.
Are once-a-day sun creams effective?
Some sun creams offer over eight hours of protection from one application, and if you absolutely nail that initial application and then stand completely still for eight hours the chances are you will be protected from the sun for the duration. However, most of us apply sun cream poorly and then move around, rubbing or sweating the cream off. It’s best to reapply frequently to be safe, no matter what claims are made on the bottle.
The Best Sun Creams
Garnier Ambre Solaire Dry Mist Sun Cream Spray SPF50+
This spray manages to pull off the trick of being highly protective against both UVA and UVB rays without being sticky or greasy. The fine mist makes it easy to cover your body from all angles and it’s rapidly absorbed by your skin so you’ll be protected quicker. £6 for 200ml, buy on amazon.co.uk
Boots Soltan Protect & Moisturise Lotion SPF30
It might be a little greasier than some of the more expensive sun creams, but Soltan has a lot going for it. It offers five-star UVA protection matched up to the SPF of 30, it’s cheaper than most other brands and, perhaps most importantly, it’s almost always available in airports when you get through security and realise you’ve forgotten to pack sun cream in your checked luggage. £7.50 for 400ml, buy on boots.com
SunSense Kids Roll On with SPF50
The gentle formula of this sunscreen means it’s suitable for children from the age of six months, and it offers high protection against both UVA and UVB rays. £7.49 for 50ml, buy on amazon.co.uk
Hawaiian Tropic Duo Defence Sun Lotion SPF30
As well as offering excellent protection from both UVA and UVB rays this sun cream has an anti-pollution layer, made from antioxidants and green tea extracts, making it a good pick for those out and about in the city on sunny days. £9.98 for 180ml, buy on amazon.co.uk
Avène Very High Protection Cream SPF50+ Spray
When you need the utmost in protection from the sun, reach for this SPF50+ spray. It’s easy to apply evenly to help ensure no patches of skin are left uncovered, and despite the high SPF it doesn’t feel too thick or oily on the skin. £18.30 for 200ml, buy on amazon.co.uk
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Anti-Shine Sun Cream Gel SPF50
If you have acne-prone skin, sun cream can sometimes be a trigger for outbreaks – but not if you go for this gel specifically designed for use on oily and sensitive skin. £15.55 for 50ml, buy on amazon.co.uk
Ultrasun Sports Gel SPF30
Enjoy sport in the sun with this gel, which sinks in quickly and offers long-lasting protection so you can set out for a lengthy run or ride without having to worry about reapplying for a couple of hours. £14 for 100ml, buy on amazon.co.uk