Ask any dermatologist his or her number one anti-ageing skincare tip, and without hesitation the answer will be exactly the same from all of them: wear sunscreen. Yet many of us in the UAE, the land of year-round sun and lounger-dotted beaches, are still not paying heed, with incidences of skin cancer on the rise. While we know it’s a bore, remembering to slip, slop, and slap every time we venture outside, the positive returns in skincare health far outweigh the few minutes spent applying a protective lotion.

Thankfully, the smelly, thick creams and brightly-coloured zincs of our childhoods have been replaced with scientifically proven products, easy-to-wear formulas, and – dare we say – somewhat chic packaging and sophisticated branding that make sunscreen application a pleasure rather than a messy chore.

What’s the damage?

Dr Doris Day, a New York-based dermatologist who has been treating sun-damaged skin for over 20 years and regularly sees patients from the UAE, says that it’s never too early or too late to start protecting your skin.

While a study by American skincare brand Murad suggests that your skin is more susceptible to sun damage early in life and, even worse, that just five severe sunburns before the age of 18 can double your risk of developing melanoma skin cancer later on, there’s still a lot that can be done to prevent the effects of sun exposure at any age.

So, what exactly is so awful about a little tanned glow? We hear you – especially the sun-starved expats. Dr Day says that even just few hours in the sun can cause a multitude of issues for skin health.

‘There is a breakdown of collagen and increase in production of melanin as well as other changes that are damaging to the skin,’ she says. 
‘The damage can take from years to decades to show – as wrinkles, uneven skin tone, blotchiness and increased redness.’

And as for that ‘healthy’ tan? Dr Day says it’s far from a sign of health.
‘The simplest way to know you’ve damaged your skin is to see a sun tan... a tan is a sign of damage to your skin,’ she says.

‘Your skin makes the tan in response to stress and it’s a defensive move to protect your skin from breakdown, ageing and skin cancer.’

Dr Irena Ivanovska, specialist dermatologist at Euromed Clinic Centre, agrees that the sun’s rays can seriously injure skin. ‘The long-term effects of UV light are damage to the fibres in the skin called elastin,’ she explains. ‘When these fibres break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily, thus taking longer to heal.’

Rays of light

You may have heard of ultraviolet rays before, but are you aware of the specific damage they can inflict on unprotected skin? Present even on cloudy or overcast days, UVA rays are responsible for age spots, freckles, rough texture, fine lines and wrinkles, dullness, discolouration, and pigmentation. However, it’s the nasty UVB rays that are deadly, causing moles and marks that can develop into cancerous melanomas.

It gets worse: UVA and UVB rays are not the only intrusive light targeting sun-seekers. Studies have also discovered that 50 per cent of the sun’s rays are made up of infrared-A (IR-A) light. While this type of light has been linked to free radical formation in skin cells and causing early ageing, there still isn’t a lot of information on IR-As, with most sunscreens not yet containing specific IR-A protection. Additional research released in 2016 also introduced a new spectrum known as high energy visible light (HEVL), which scientists hypothesise is responsible for pigmentation in darker skin, which often appears as larger-than-average moles or stretches of flat pigmentation.

Avoiding exposure to these harmful rays is key to keeping the ageing process at bay, says Rebecca Treston, founder of Rebecca Treston Aesthetics at Euromed Clinic Centre. ‘Sun damage is caused by the accumulative effect of UV rays,’ she says, noting that the amount of sun damage depends on the patient’s lifestyle and skin colour. ‘Caucasian people start to see sun damage in their mid-20s, while with darker skin types,it could be their mid-30s before they see the effects.’

Screen your creams

Sure, we know that outside brunches and mornings at Kite Beach aren’t doing our skin any favours, but when faced with shelves of creams, lotions, sprays and oils, all with different SPF ratings and sun protection claims, it can be tricky to work out exactly which product is going to ward off the fiercest sun rays. While the UAE doesn’t yet hold any official recommendation for levels of sun protection to be used by residents, health experts suggest looking to Australia’s guidelines. The sun-blasted island nation has developed the strictest set of regulations in the world for sunscreen products, with formulas being vigorously tested before being allowed in Aussie stores.

The most important item to look for on the label is whether your sunscreen of choice protects against all types of sun damage. A broad spectrum sunscreen will block both UVA and UVB rays. A high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is also important when picking out sunscreen. A rating of SPF30+ is the minimum you should be using, while SPF50 is the highest rating officially recognised by sun awareness groups such as the Cancer Council. The gap in protection between the two, however, is minimal, with SPF30 blocking just under 97 per cent of UVB rays and high UVA protection, while SPF50 protects from 98 per cent of UVB and a slighter higher amount of UVA protection, so don’t stress too much if you can only find the former on shelves. And if you’re planning on using the rest of last summer’s bottle? Double-check the expiry date and think back to when you first popped the cap, as most sunscreen creams and lotions are only effective for
12 months after opening. For oils, it’s best to go for just six months.

Lay it on thick

In addition to broad spectrum ratings, the amount of sunscreen you use can affect your level of protection. Henry W Lim, a dermatologist for the Skin Cancer Foundation, says that applying too little sunscreen is a major issue amongst casual beachgoers. ‘Studies have shown that people use about half the amount at which the products are tested,’ he shares. ‘So the label may say SPF30, but you’re getting closer to SPF 15 or 12 [due to under-applying].’

On average, an adult should be using around an espresso cup of sunscreen to cover exposed parts of the body, including burn-prone areas such as hands and the tops of feet. Your face and neck will need about a teaspoon’s worth. Don’t forget your hair and scalp – spritz on a specially formulated conditioning spray such as Label.M Protein Spray (Dh80, Toni & Guy salons), which contains UV filters and adds shine. After applying, it takes about 15 minutes for sunscreens to absorb into the skin and start being effective, so linger inside a little longer to avoid your barrier being washed or sweated off. Reapply every four hours and after swimming, to ensure you remain protected from tip to toe.

Turning back time

For those of us who spent our teenage years stretched out on a sun lounger, there are a few ways we can revive our rather tanned hides. In addition to monitoring skin and moles for unusual changes, a few rounds with an experienced dermatologist can help ease the appearance of sun-aged complexions.

Rebecca says you can choose an ablative treatment such as CO2 lasers. These can be effective in just one session as they remove the actual tissue. She also suggests surface treatments such as IPL, non-ablative lasers and chemical peels. ‘As we don’t remove any of the skin there is zero downtime with this category of treatments,’ she points out, ‘but both types of treatments are very effective at reversing the signs of ageing.’

The most – and least – effective kinds of sunscreens on the market

Lotion Ever popular, lotions and creams are an everyday classic for several good reasons. Fast-absorbing, they are safe for the entire family, with a multitude of brands on the market to suit any budget. Perfect for both face and body, they usually contain a mix of chemical and physical sunblockers for a high level of sun protection.

Zinc stick A relic from childhood, zinc sunscreen still has a place in your family’s beach bag. Apply a stripe of this brightly coloured stick down your children’s noses, across their cheeks and on their ears to give extra protection (in addition to their usual suncream). There are now clear zincs available, but we love the retro blast-from-the-past neon green, orange and pink.

Oil Reformed beach bunnies who used to slather on olive oil to tan (but now know better) will love using a sunscreen oil. Water-resistant and hydrating, they are great for sweaty humid days, playing sport, and hitting the beach or pool. Just avoid using on your face, as they can leave already oily skin types with an unwanted shine.

Powder While you can dust a zinc-infused SPF powder over your foundation to help it set, or to top up your sun protection just before leaving the office for the day, it’s not the longest-lasting or highest-protection available. As it will also wash or sweat off easily, use SPF powder as additional protection rather than your base.

SPF moisturiser It’s probably not enough to use moisturiser with SPF as your only protection, says Tony Matthews from the Cancer Council. ‘It’s not as effective as an actual sunblock; it could be an SPF30-rated compound, but by the time it’s diluted with other ingredients, the SPF value is closer to SPF 10/12.’ He suggests applying moisturiser under your suncream.

Supplements Pills that claim to prevent sunburn and boost tanning have hit shelves recently, but the Cancer Council says that such products have yet to be proven to offer any level of SPF. Featuring astaxanthin, an antioxidant found in wild salmon, they may offer a vitamin boost to support skin and hair health, but can’t be depended on to provide adequate sun protection.

These skin-savers can help keep you safe this summer

Neutrogena UltraSheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF55

Lightweight and fast-absorbing, this award-winning and budget-friendly buy (Dh70) is suitable for daily use by the family.

Dr Doris Day Facial Silk Sunscreen

SPF 30 Dr Day’s smoothing formula has a beautiful colour, feels soft as silk on the skin and doesn’t clog pores. (Dh239,

Labo Transdermic Sunscreen Fluid Base 50+

Packed with hydrating hyaluronic acids, a few drops give broad spectrum protection. It also doubles as a make-up primer. (Dh249, BinSina)

Clarins Sunscreen Care Spray for Body SPF50+

Spritz on this clear liquid sunscreen and massage for water-resistant protection. It’s ideal for post-swim touch-ups and sports days. (Dh110, Debenhams)