The Lush approach to suncare

What you need to know about sun protection

Lush suncare is back. But in the years we’ve been away, the conversation around sun protection has reached fever pitch thanks to misinformed beauty publications and social media advice. Is wearing sunscreen everyday actually necessary to protect your skin from ageing? Should you really wear sunscreen indoors? Lush formulator and co-founder Helen Ambrosen discusses making a product for every need while Professor Brian Diffey, author of the book Sun Protection: a risk management approach, sorts fact from fiction.

Content warning: this article contains information regarding skin cancer.

Over the last few decades, we’ve gone from slapping on tanning oils to religiously slathering our skin in SPF day cream.  But, having advised bodies like the World Health Organization on sun exposure and skin health, Professor Diffey is frustrated by the amount of misinformation about sun protection in the public domain.

“I have a quote here that says, ‘Ask any celebrity or dermatologist and they'll tell you we should all wear face sunscreen all year round,’” he says. “Well, there are plenty of dermatologists who wouldn't advocate that, and that is also the view of the British Association of Dermatologists. I read another recently from the education manager of a dermatology company no less who said, ‘Remember that the UVA level is constant from dawn to dusk all year round.’ It's absolute nonsense, but these myths become ingrained. I’d love to see a company challenge some of this misinformation.”

Going against the zero-sun trend

Enter Lush co-founder Helen Ambrosen. She’s followed Professor Diffey’s sensible approach to suncare for decades and is keen to make sure that Lush customers not only get effective products but accurate advice when they are needed.

“It would be so easy to pop a sunscreen or two into a day moisturiser, which is what the rest of the industry does,” she explains. “But we have followed Professor Diffey’s guidance which is not to mix your daycare with your suncare. That’s been very helpful guidance for us in terms of formulating. We will also be selling our suncare seasonally in shops, so that we are not selling our customers a product they don’t need during winter. Markets with strong UV levels all year round, however, will be able to sell these products according to their needs and we will still have suncare available online for holidaymakers!”

It’s a notably different stance from other companies in the beauty industry, informed by Professor Diffey’s expertise. But where does he think this misinformation about sun exposure is coming from? Professor Diffey explains that often the crucial expertise of physical scientists is missing from the conversation about suncare in the beauty industry.

“When we’re thinking about protecting ourselves from the sun, it’s really a two-stage process,” he says. “The first stage is to consider how much sun we are actually getting, and to assess this we turn to physics and climatology. Next, we need to ask ourselves what harm is this level of exposure likely to do to our skin? And that’s when we need the expertise of dermatologists and biologists. Knowing the levels we are getting is crucially important because the same advice doesn’t apply on a dark winter’s day that would apply on a sunny summer’s day. I think the main mistake being made is that journalists often approach the wrong type of expert who is then asked questions outside of their expertise but feels obliged to give an answer. That’s led to these myths being propagated and is what I call ‘misguided advocacy’.”

Reasons to use sunscreen sensibly

What also concerns Professor Diffey is that unnecessary use of sunscreen is certainly harmful for the planet and could be detrimental to human health too. “The primary function of sunscreens is to prevent sunburn, but the beauty industry has become hooked on the message that sunscreen is an everyday necessity even in winter months. This is unnecessary and possibly detrimental for a majority of people not living in high UV areas for much of the year. We shouldn't be aiming for zero-sun exposure: the attitude that you've got to protect your skin from the sun all year round unless your climate and lifestyle demands it or you have a medical condition that makes you more susceptible to UV radiation. We need to establish a balance between how we manage the beneficial and detrimental effects of sun exposure.”

Weighing up the pros and cons of sunscreen has also been on Helen’s mind. For decades, she and Lush co-founder Mark Constantine have debated whether or not to formulate sunscreens, knowing that they were an important public health measure but being concerned about their environmental impact and potential side effects on human health. Thankfully, due to the sophisticated in vitro tests conducted by animal-free lab XcellR8, she is now able to formulate with confidence. “Testing the sunscreens on human cell models has given us data that is far more relevant for human exposures than animal testing data, meaning we can be confident that our suncare products are safe. And we’ve done this in a completely animal-free way,” she explains.

Find a sunscreen that you love - and apply generously

Helen is also keen to offer products that are lovely to use so customers will apply generously when they are needed. The Sunblock (SPF30) is a solid, self-preserving bar designed to be used in the shower to ensure you catch every bit of exposed skin before going out in the sun. Million Dollar Sun Cream (SPF10) contains luxurious skincare ingredients and light-reflecting pigment for delicate shimmer and a dewy complexion. These are the first products of more to come, with Helen keenly aware that useability is just as important as the SPF on the label.

“We know that people use less sunscreen than they think, which is a problem if they go out in the sun thinking they are well-protected. So, we really want to tell customers to find a product they love so they will use it generously, re-apply it regularly and use it alongside shade, a hat and protective clothing to look after their skin in the sun,” she says.

How to work out your sun protection needs

There is no one-size-fits all approach to suncare, but thankfully Brian has advice on how to assess your personal needs. “To work out your sunscreen requirements, you should consider where you are, the time of year, how long you’re planning to be outside and your personal sensitivity to sunlight (this is called your sun-reactive skin type),” he explains. “We can estimate that for most people on a sunny holiday, a sunscreen labelled SPF30 should be adequate to prevent sunburn, especially when used in conjunction with shade and clothing around the middle of the day. The closer to the equator you live, the more of the year round you need to think about sun protection, in terms of behaviour, clothing, seeking shade and using sunscreen.”

He explains that all skin can burn or be damaged by the sun, but the threshold for overexposure differs depending on skin colour. “As a generalisation, Black people are about 7 to 10 times less susceptible to UV exposure than White people, although, obviously, individual susceptibility varies depending on the ratio of eumelanin to pheomelanin (the different chemical forms of melanin) in your skin. It is important to note that people with Black skin can still burn when UV exposure is high and prolonged, so seeking shade, covering up and using sunscreen is still important in these conditions. 

“Another important consideration, however, is that Black people are also more at risk of vitamin D deficiency, since most of our vitamin D needs are produced from sun exposure. So, you wouldn't want to over-encourage the use of sunscreen in someone with Black skin, especially if they live in Northern Europe, because they need to be in the sun longer than someone with white skin to make the same amount of vitamin D.”

Know the signs of sunburn

Knowing the signs of overexposure can help you avoid it. On pale skin, sunburn can appear pink or red. On darker skin, overexposure can lead to immediate pigment darkening which can manifest as a grey or ashy colour. Sunburned skin of any colour can feel tender or hot and may also peel. Use your three lines of defence (shade, protective clothing and sunscreen) to protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer and photoaging.

“Sunscreens have a real public health role”, says Professor Diffey. “Not only will they prevent you getting sunburn if they're applied appropriately and you behave sensibly in the sun, but there's pretty good evidence that they'll reduce your risk of skin cancer, which is the most common human cancer. Used unnecessarily, however, sunscreens can compromise vitamin D production, and there have been reports of contact allergies  and systemic absorption. Also, there are environmental concerns about sunscreens causing damage to coral reefs and marine life either directly from washing off swimmers or indirectly from wastewater discharges into the oceans. So, sunscreens have the potential to cause harmful effects in both humans and the environment and, because of that, it's important we get the balance right. That's not to say don't use them, but to use them when it's necessary.”

There’s just one more thing Professor Diffey would like to clear up. “You do not need to wear sunscreen indoors,” he says. “The amount of UV that you get inside a building is absolutely trivial - unless you work in a greenhouse.”

Good news for your skin, your bank balance, and the planet.

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Domovská stránka - The Lush approach to suncare