The other day a woman said to me that she reckoned summer didn't really start until Boxing Day. With the weather as erratic as it has been lately it's hard to disagree, but in any case it should always be sunscreen season, although research shows New Zealanders are slow to apply the stuff unless the sun is shining bright.
With around 80 per cent of damaging rays filtering through whatever the weather, assuming you should wait for high summer before covering up is truly dicing with death. New Zealand, along with Queensland, has the world's highest rate of melanoma and sun-damaged skin is clearly in evidence on many of us.
A survey done this year found that just 11 per cent of New Zealanders used sunscreen daily. More than three-quarters of people reported getting sunburnt more than once a year and around the same number did not realise they needed protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Given that UVA is far more prevalent than UVB and can penetrate cloud and glass, this is a concern. UVB, the so-called "burning" rays, are what sun protection factor (SPF) ratings measure. It is problematic determining the actual degree to which sunscreen deters UVA, the "ageing" rays, although broad spectrum sunscreens do provide protection when used correctly.
UVA rays are an invisible scourge which cause damage deep within the cells. This damage can lead to skin cancers and signs of premature ageing, from wrinkles to pigmentation and the formation of scaly lesions called actinic keratoses.
"UVA rays are present during all daylight hours year-round and cause damage that isn't visible until later in life, says Andre De Beer, marketing manager of Banana Boat, the sunscreen company that commissioned the survey into our sun slackness.
At Prescription Skincare, where nurses work alongside plastic surgeons removing skin cancers, the recommendation is for patients to use a zinc-based sunscreen (in particular for the face, neck and backs of hands) every day. "Wrinkling and thinning of the skin and uneven motley pigmentation is often considered part of the natural ageing process, but as we know, it is sun damage that causes the majority of ageing to skin," the clinic says.
The benefits of the application of topical antioxidants to help deter sun damage is an area of developing research, but some sunscreens and many moisturisers are now incorporating these for their supposed skincare benefits. Vitamins E and C are of particular interest.
"Many people think the sunscreen in their makeup is enough to protect them," say Caci clinics, which regularly deal with sun-damaged skin. "In New Zealand the small amount of SPF in makeup is not enough." The advice they give clients is to always apply sunscreen (or a moisturiser with broad-spectrum SPF30+) under makeup.
In the survey, two-thirds of respondents were reportedly "put off" using sunscreen due to greasy residue, and a third disliked its "white finish." This suggests they need to shop around for better formulas suited to their skin. Here you can choose from physical blockers, also known as inorganic sunscreens, such as a zinc and titanium. These are now made more attractive by micro-encapsulated particles or chemical screening agents, sometimes called organic compounds, with the two types often mixed together for added effectiveness.
If you spot a product claiming to be a "sunblock", "waterproof" or "sweatproof", then the terms are misleading under the revised Australian/New Zealand Standard on sunscreen. Any product wishing to claim compliance with the standard must not use these terms or claim a sun protection factor greater than 50+, it was determined this year.
Garth Wyllie, who heads industry body the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, said the new standard brought international alignment across most of the recognised test methods. It also captured a wider range of cosmetics containing SPF. "This is the most significant change in sunscreen standards in Australasia for more than 15 years."
Australia was something of an international anomaly in its previous capping of SPF at 30+ with SPFs having raced higher elsewhere around the world including here where those classified in other jurisdictions were allowed. Now Europe and the US have agreed to phase in SPF50+ due to concerns that higher ratings, especially SPF100, may give consumers the false impression they are totally protected. My personal bugbear has been not so much with sunscreens, but with the labelling of so-called secondary sunscreens, the likes of foundation, moisturiser or a lipstick, where an SPF rating indicates more protection than the bit of sunscreen added can provide.
In another recent regulatory move, the Environmental Protection Agency has made it compulsory to label nanoscale ingredients in cosmetics. The labelling does not take effect until July 2015, to allow for the clearing of existing stock. The Sustainability Council has called for the agency to bridge the gap by creating an online public register of cosmetic products that contain nano particles, saying more research is needed into their health implications.
1. Elta MD UV Clear SPF46 $77
This is a fine example of a specialist treatment sunscreen from a company which caters for the varying needs of people with acne and rosacea or who have recently had laser or resurfacing treatments. There are also oil-free versions and another with moisturising hyaluronic acid for those with very dry skin, all in tidy airless pumps.The textures are light and the tone transparent due to micro-fine zinc oxide, making them ideal under makeup. (Available from clinics including Prescription Skincare, ph (09) 529 5784.)
* Dermalogica is another company which makes a good sunscreen suitable for post-procedural skin.
2. Coola Citrus Mimosa Sport SPF35 $50
If you are choosing your sunscreen as a fashion item based on look and smell then this spray and Coola's Pina Colada version will appeal. Luckily they are good chemical screens endorsed by the American Lifeguard Association, although these common active ingredients are somewhat obscured by "organic suncare" emblazoned on the bottle. To be fair to Coola it does use an impressively high amount of certified organic ingredients. The problem is the word "chemical" promotes near hysteria in some people, so there is a trend whereby companies shelter behind cute labelling which makes it difficult for consumers to know what they are buying without reading the small print.
Coola calls its sunscreens with chemical actives its classic range, but like many companies it also has a mineral-based alternative line. This uses non-nano zinc. It also has another interesting line it calls a Plant UV range. This is described as "the future of sunscreen" with "SPF enhancing plant stem cells. It is similar to claims from other makers that added antioxidants will enhance sun protection and offer anti-ageing effects. All well and good as part of a skincare armoury, but clearly it is the zinc within that got Coola's Plant UV sunscreen to its SPF30. Purely natural ranges which don't use zinc generally only hit SPF15. (From salon and spa stockists, ph (09) 336 1891 or see beautycare.co.nz.)
* Chemical sprays need not cost nearly this much, good results can be had from respected big name brands such as Neutrogena and Nivea. For a good zinc-based alternative try the Invisible Zinc range.
3. River Veda Rejuvenate Day Star SPF30 $37.50
This New Zealand-developed natural brand uses zinc oxide to enhance protection levels. It comes in this 150ml tube and a 50ml roll-on which would slip easily into a handbag for top-ups. Online here.
* If you are happy with an SPF15 rating then your range of natural options is greatly expanded. Provided you reapply as required and take the usual other precautions they will give you fairly decent protection, although skincare specialists (and this page) recommends using SPF30+ products .
4. Murad Oil-Free Sunblock SPF30 $50
The oil-free matte finish makes this an appealing unisex choice which also claims skincare benefits from an antioxidant-rich formula with pomegranate extract said to help fight the sun-induced free radical damage which causes signs of premature ageing. (Clinics and salons, including Caci Medi-Spas, see here.)
* Oil-free formulas are now readily available at all price points and are good for oily and combination skins or in products worn under makeup. Products that promise added skincare benefits are also springing up all over. Extra claims generally equal extra cost. Not worth it for glorified moisturising ingredients, but for multi-tasking products which include Prevage, Environ and Dermalogica the investment may not be so silly. I prefer not to muddy the waters, opting for a straightforward sunscreen and separate skincare products.
5. Becca Mineral Tint SPF30 $55
This Australian-made mineral sunscreen carries a high percentage of micronized zinc oxide, the ingredient considered to be the most effective at resisting UVA penetration. The nourishing yet lightweight formula contains vitamin E and comes in three shades of tint to do double-duty evening out the skin tone alone or under makeup. (From Glamorpuss, Newmarket.)