The Big Misconception About Aftersun, According To Dermatologists

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
Picking up a bottle of aftersun lotion along with your sunscreen is usually part and parcel of summer beauty shopping, whether you're heading abroad or planning on catching some rays in your back garden.
By now, most of us are aware of the potential dangers of baking in the sun, from sunburn to skin cancer, but even among the most savvy sun-worshippers, there is a common misconception that slathering on some cooling aftersun cream has the ability to reverse any sun damage caused.
If you've already spent a good few days in the sun already, you might become a little more sparing with sunscreen going forward, applying aftersun to neutralise everything from redness to peeling. But according to the professionals, this school of thought is harmful.
Dr Thivi Maruthappu, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, explains: "There is absolutely a misconception that it is okay to get sunburnt and then apply aftersun later to 'repair' the damage. However, it’s impossible for a cream to actually repair DNA damage, as UV rays damage skin cells by causing mutations in DNA."
Marketing manager Sophie Gold, 30, is one woman who has often depended on aftersun as a result of haphazard sun care, especially on holiday. "I’ve been an avid aftersun user for years," she told R29. "Firstly, I love the smell and the cooling effect, but I have always thought that my risk of skin cancer would be lower if I used it." However, this is untrue argue dermatologists. Sophie admitted: "I apply SPF on my body but usually only once and then I slather on aftersun before bed to counteract the affects of the sun."
Dr Maruthappu advises against this. She continued: "When the damage exceeds the ability of the cell to repair itself, it dies and releases inflammatory cytokines. As a result, we observe redness swelling and pain and can experience skin peeling or even blistering in the case of severe burns. An accumulation of this damage is the single most important risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, getting sunburnt once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer."
In other words, it pays to protect your skin properly by regularly applying a broad spectrum sunscreen, rather than relying on aftersun to do the job afterwards.
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Dr Sophie Shotter, cosmetic doctor at The Illuminate Skin Clinic, is just as sceptical about aftersun as Dr Maruthappu, but says it does have its benefits. "In theory, it is true that aftersun can offer symptomatic relief from sunburn," she said. "However, it is essentially a marketing gimmick as you’re as likely to reap the same results with a moisturiser for sensitive skin."
Dr Shotter adds, "Commercially available aftersun is simply a moisturiser with some extra soothing ingredients, like cucumber and aloe vera." While they can alleviate short term symptoms of sunburn, Dr Shotter mentioned some ingredients can cause reactions. "Common culprits such as cooling alcohol denat, actually dehydrate the skin further and fragrances can irritate. Fragrances also react adversely in sunlight, too. Additionally, thick oily formulations create an emollient barrier on top of the skin, trapping in heat and exacerbating inflammation and the burning sensation that comes along with sunburn."
Relying on aftersun for damage reversing properties rather than putting the focus on a good sunscreen is not a good idea, especially as skin cancer is the second most common type of cancer diagnosis for 15-49 year old Brits, according to the British Skin Foundation. While it's evident that soothing ingredients in aftersun can calm the outer layer of your skin, they can’t repair on a cellular level.
The best solution is prevention and this is where SPF literacy comes into play. Dermatologists advise it is best to choose an SPF of at least 30, that is water and sweat resistant with broad spectrum UVB and UVA cover (look for 4 stars at least). Sunscreen should be applied about 15 minutes before exposure and reapplied every two hours or immediately after swimming. Dermatologists recommend that adults need one teaspoon for the face and neck and a minimum of 2-4 tablespoons to cover the body. Remember apply to your eyelids, lips, backs of knees, ears, feet, hands and under your arms, too.
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