It’s June, which for those of us in the beauty world means ... self-tan. So there I was, booking in for a VIP appointment at St Tropez, the self-tan company, when I found myself laughing out loud as the address was emailed across. For, in spite of the valiant efforts of chief executive Michelle Feeney to change our perception of sunless tanning in the five years since she’s been at the helm; in spite of sponsoring just about every fashion show you can shake a mascara stick at; in spite of the fact that St Tropez can count Gwynnie, Rihanna and Penélope Cruz among its fans – in spite of all this – the St Tropez head office is situated right next door to Stringfellows.
Yes, the strip club. Well, it’s all about skin, you know. There’s a certain poetic justice there.
After all, as far as I’m concerned, self-tanning needs to keep the little that remains of its downmarket frivolity. It’s what distinguishes it – not entirely but mostly – from the miserable world of those sunscreen people. There, working in darkened basements, lurk men in lab coats with evil plans to encroach on the few rays of joy we have in our lives, like the harbingers of doom they are. Yes, I know I exaggerate, I know we have to be careful about skin cancer and (before everyone writes in) I’m not advocating we sit in the sun and burn, baby, burn. But to my mind, sunscreen is the apogee of the type of fear marketing developed in the 1950s.
It started with a straightforward problem: protection against skin cancer. When the risk of our legs bowing out like Chippendale chairs due to rickets and Vitamin D deprivation began to outweigh some of our initial terror, the Sunscreeners appealed to our vanity, pointing out the anti-ageing benefits of looking like a ghost all year long and reminding us that it’s only a matter of nanoseconds before every single freckle we have will join up in one horrid brown splodge that will have to be lasered off and have several different £250 a pop serums slathered over it for the rest of our lives.
It was enough to make even the most fearless beauty editor hide under her desk in panic. And that was even before the internationally mixed messages started to arrive.
The Americans warned us that if we didn’t wear a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 at all times, even on the murkiest grey day, even when our only exposure to the sky was the five-minute dash from subway to office, then we would surely die a slow and painful death, our leathered faces wrinkling into the ground.
The French, on the other hand, dutifully enthused about SPFs and then reluctantly over the years upped their game from offering SPF35s as their highest to SPF50s as well as assorted after-sun, pre-sun, self-tan, thinking-about-sun combinations that make it all feel a little more interesting.
Then it turned out all of the above only worked if you slathered six teaspoons, or about 36g, over the body of an average adult, which is how they test the sunscreens officially. If you put on even half as much as the said “recommended amount” you can expect your protection to fall by as much as two to three times. In other words, you may think that you’ve got SPF50 on but, in reality, it’s just 25.
Which is not to say you should give up and go naked into that good sunny day – if only to protect me from the scandalised emails from dermatologists telling me off for being irresponsible that I will no doubt receive for the rest of my life. What I am saying is: be realistic about your suncare. Be honest with yourself. And follow the below recommendations that have taken me years to develop.
1) Be a renegade. Just a little bit. There’s a growing backlash against indiscriminate slathering of sunscreen 24/7 – Chantecaille founder Sylvie Chantecaille has one of the best SPF50s I’ve tried and yet even she believes you don’t need it all the time. As does Sue Harmsworth, founder of the Espa beauty range, who was recently advised by the Mayr Clinic’s specialists that she needed 40 minutes of unprotected sun a day to boost her Vitamin D levels.
2) If you’re using a retinol-based anti-ageing moisturiser keep out of the sun or wear an SPF50. Retinol thins your skin, which is good for wrinkles but not so good for sun exposure, which (oh the irony) gives you wrinkles. And pigmentation issues.
3) Get a sunless (it’s forbidden now to call it “fake”) tan – it’s a great pick-me-up. James Read’s new range is the current fashion favourite with clients such as Lara Stone and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley; or stick with St Tropez and try out its super-dark shade this summer.
4) Finally, be intelligent about it: if you’re pale or outdoors in the midday sun, obviously you need to slather the sunscreen on and get in the shade. But if you live in Scotland and it’s winter? No one’s going to convince me you need SPF50.