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Safety under the Spanish sun

Safe sun tanning in SpainThe Costa Blanca has on average a heart warming 300 days of sunshine per year. It is reported to have the healthiest climate in Europe, and those that live here or are frequent visitors state to feeling more relaxed and generally happier. But you can, of course, have too much of a good thing. We all know that to protect our skin from the sun's aging effects and cancer-causing rays, we should stay out of the sun, few of us though, take that advice. With beautiful beaches and clear blue seas here on the Costa Blanca, it would be difficult to suggest that we should all stay at home in the shade. So what we do instead is slap on a bit of sun screen, and hope for the best. Convincing ourselves that a factor 6 for the first afternoon is sufficient 'preparation' for the factor 2 by the end of the week, with all of us in a rush to get that 'perfect tan'.

It may be surprising to learn that there are two types of ultraviolet radiation that can age your skin and lead to cancer, and the SPF ratings on most sunscreen lotions and sprays address only one - the potent burning rays, or UVB. The higher the SPF rating on your sunscreen, the less short-wave radiation, or UVB rays, penetrate your skin and so allow you to achieve a more bronzed look without ugly red patches and very un sexy peeling skin.

Increasingly, though, dermatologists are concerned about the role of long-wave ultraviolet radiation, the more penetrating rays known as UVA radiation, as another source of burning rays and skin cancer risk. These are the rays that penetrate below the epidermis of the skin, into the dermis, where the body makes collagen and elastin that provide skin's firmness and structure. Yet, there is no rating system in place to quantify how well sunscreens shield us specifically from UVA radiation, which is the main type that people are exposed to at tanning salons as well as through strong sun exposure. A worrying fact when you consider that solar radiation is about 95% UVA and only 5% UVB.

Unfortunately, few sun screens are produced that provide a screen for these much more harmful UVA rays. For now, it's up to consumers to find products that provide good protection.

Many products that block UVA rays contain physical sunscreens that reflect, scatter or absorb light. They include zinc oxide, the pasty white cream beach goers smear on their cheeks and noses, and another heavy cream called titanium dioxide.

You might recognize on some labels the term "micronized zinc oxide," which refers to a lighter version of zinc oxide. There's also a newer chemical sunscreen, Parsol 1789, that absorbs UVA light. It is yet to be shown how well any of these products protect from UVA rays.

Products that claim on their labels to offer "broad spectrum" UVA-UVB protection may not do enough to keep UVA rays from damaging your skin. Some products with SPF 30 and SPF 45 ratings actually have poor or mediocre UVA protection. But then there haven't been any scientific studies to show that micronized zinc or titanium dioxide are good blockers of UVA radiation either, so sunbathers should exercise caution regardless.

Another chemical called mexoryl, a product derived from camphor available for use in sunscreens across Europe has been shown in several European studies to offer superior protection against a broad range of UVA radiation. This product is available in the Anthelios sunscreen line made by France's La Roche-Posay.

Dermatologists are in agreement that on the whole people are much too sparing with sunscreens. They recommend that people apply sunscreens with a rating of at least SPF 15 as part of their daily ritual, before going to school or work, and before outdoor activities. When outdoors, sunscreens should be reapplied after 30 minutes in the sun and every couple of hours after that, more if they rub off or after swimming.

Researchers are working on a sunscreen pill that could make full-body sun protection even better, but until then, be sensible. Don't stay out in the sun for long periods of time, particularly between the hours of 11.00 am and 3.00pm when the sun is at its' strongest.

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