Enjoying the Spanish sun

Lady on the beach Shutterstock: Nikita Burdenkov

Summer is just around the corner, which means long, warm days and plenty of opportunities to get a healthy dose of vitamin D.

Of course, spending too much time in the sun is not without its risks. The link between sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented. According to Cancer Research UK, this is because too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage DNA in skin cells, which can cause cancer.

The European Cancer Information System (ECIS) states that 2.7 million new cancer cases were recorded in EU-27 in 2022, with 4 per cent attributable to skin melanomas. It is not all bad news, though, as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece were among those with the lowest recorded incident rates. Conversely, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark were some of the highest.

So, with the possibility of damaging our long-term health, why do so many of us love to sit in the sun – aside from the obvious desire for a tan?

Benefits of sun exposure

It could be because exposure to the sun improves our overall well-being. This happens because of an elevation in serotonin levels, sometimes affectionately known as the ‘happiness hormone’. The effect is even more significant in those afflicted by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is deemed to be a form of depression that can leave the sufferer with feelings of fatigue and despair. While it is not known exactly what causes SAD, it is believed to be connected to low serotonin levels, which is why it tends to affect people during the winter months when there is less sunlight.

Another by-product of sun exposure is improved sleep quality, assuming you are cool enough to sleep that is! This is because the light/dark cycle of the sun has a powerful effect on what is known as our circadian clock. Put simply, this is the natural rhythm of physical, mental and behavioural changes the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle. According to experts at the National Institute for Occupancy Safety and Health (NIOSH), seeing bright light in the morning will help you fall asleep more easily at night.

Aside from the psychological benefits, sun exposure can also produce physical benefits. An increase in vitamin D aids the body in calcium absorption, improving bone health. This can help prevent conditions such as osteoporosis and reduce the risk of bone fractures.

All excellent news for those of us who have opted for a life here in sunny Spain. What’s not to like about feeling happier, healthier and getting a great night’s sleep? On the more serious side, though, how do we ensure that we benefit from all this good stuff while avoiding the pitfalls of too much sun exposure?

How to choose the correct sunscreen

Choosing the right sunscreen for your skin type is a great place to start. When making your choice, you should consider the level of protection against UVA and UVB rays and how water resistant it is. This is particularly important if your sunbathing experience also includes regular dips in the sea or pool.

The next thing to consider is the sun protection factor (SPF), which can range from SPF 2 to 50+. So, how exactly do you make the right choice, and is there enough information available to help with this?

One way to decide is to consider how quickly your skin burns in the sun unprotected. So, for example, if you start to turn red after ten minutes in direct sunlight, then an SPF 30 sunscreen would ‘theoretically’ protect you for 30 times longer, equating to 300 minutes.

However, this is on the assumption that a correct amount of product is applied evenly all over the body. According to New York City dermatologist; Valerie Goldburt, this means applying two millimeters of cream for every square meter of skin. In reality, nobody puts it on like this because to do so would leave a visible layer. Her expert recommendation is to use an SPF 50 to ensure at least a couple of hours of protection, even if not applied accurately.

This being the case, for the vast majority, it would appear that we should be heading straight for the SPF 50. This opens up the question: Should stockists of sunscreens in Spain opt to sell only the higher factors and assist a safer choice? Would those who do so be placed in a more favourable light than those who don’t?

Sunscreen awareness campaign

Another way to promote responsible sun exposure is to run a media campaign, just like the Rosaleda Shopping Centre in Malaga chose to do in 2022. Their posters were aimed at Spanish visitors and carried the message ‘Sin proteccion solar… mañana, esto, no sera moreno’ (Without sun protection, tomorrow, this, will not be brown). They intended to promote the importance of caring for and protecting the skin from irresponsible sun exposure.

They took the campaign one step further by creating an Instagram filter allowing users to look tanned without exposing themselves to the sun. The filter offered different shades of tan and typical beach and summer elements. It even included the option of adding some chilled music!

Did they have the right idea, and should we be seeing more promotional activity like this aimed at the English-speaking community of Spain? We are all aware of the ‘drink responsibly’ message with its sometimes hard-hitting video footage and imagery. Is it time for an equally intense ‘sun responsibly’ wide-spread media campaign?

Free sunscreen dispensers

An initiative put forward by Monica Garcia, Spain’s Minister of Health, is the introduction of free sunscreen dispensers in public places such as parks, health centres, sports centres and libraries. While there is no time to launch for this year, this is one of the next initiatives that she has in mind. This is coupled with a proposal to reduce IVA on sunscreens from 21% to 10%. It is unclear what SPF these dispensers will carry, but hopefully, it will be high enough for everyone to benefit from.

Moving on from sunscreen, something else to consider is the time of day you opt to sit in the sun. Spending the entire day at the beach can be tempting, but this does come with added risk. Experts recommend that, as far as possible, you should avoid being in the sun when it is at its strongest. This is typically between midday and 4pm. If this is unavoidable, be sure to cover up with some lightweight, loose-fitting clothing. The more skin you can cover up, the better, and don’t forget a hat to protect your head.

Best aftercare for sunburn

If you do resemble a lobster after too much sun exposure, it is vital to soothe your skin and help it heal as quickly as possible. A cool shower is a great way to cool down irritated or sunburned skin. This should be followed by applying soothing moisturiser or a dedicated after-sun product. Choose one that contains aloe vera, cucumber extract or chamomile, as these will have a calming effect.

Be sure to increase your water intake (and that goes for when you are in the sun, too), as the sun can be very dehydrating. This will help to replenish your skin’s fluids from within.

Finally, no matter how tempting, avoid exposing your skin to the sun again until completely healed. The great thing about Spain is that when the sun comes out, it sticks around, so it is sure to be sunny once you are ready to get your next vitamin D fix.

Over to you

Do you think enough is being done to educate and highlight the risks of irresponsible sun exposure?

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Written by

Donna Williams

Marketer, copywriter, storyteller and President of Samaritans in Spain. They say variety is the spice of life and I am definitely loving life!