You had better pack your SPF in your hand luggage when getting on a plane – and apply plenty before the flight. Here’s why
Feeling smug about diligently applying a high SPF on holiday? Props to you, of course. But the bad news is, if you start slapping the stuff on the moment you reach your destination, you’re already late to the party. A meta-analysis of the risk of melanoma in cabin crew and pilots shows that those who fly for a living suffer double the cases of the deadly skin disease compared to the rest of the population – and it’s not because they party hard in the sunshine during their layovers.
It's the conditions on the plane that put skin in danger – and that means passengers are exposed to the same risks as the crew. It’s prompted consultant dermatologist Dr Mia Jing Gao to urge people to “always wear sunscreen when taking a flight.” If that sounds silly to you, you might want to read on.
Why the sun is an in-flight menace
While you cannot get sunburn when behind glass because UVB rays are largely blocked by it, the same cannot be said of DNA-mutating, wrinkle-forming, cancer-causing UVA rays: according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 50 per cent of them penetrate glass and reach skin if you’re anywhere within several feet of a window. It’s why English truck drivers age faster on their right arms and sides of their face (for most of the rest of the world, it’s the left side), and why you’re advised to wear SPF if your desk is by a window.
Of course, the higher you go up in the atmosphere and the closer you get to the sun, the stronger the radiation becomes. And that’s where you can begin to twig that airline pilots (not to mention astronauts) are at an increased risk from UV.
The figures are quite shocking: “One hour in the cockpit at 30.000 feet provides the same [UVA] radiation at 20 minutes on a tanning bed,” says Jing Gao. Tanning beds, of course, are deemed a serious cancer risk (so much so that they’re banned in places like Australia and Canada). Jing Gao adds that a flight to New York for a pilot means exposure to radiation equivalent to that of a chest X-ray.
For those who spend their working lives at altitude, this exposure obviously adds up and increases the risk of complications, as evidenced by the fact that cabin crew have high incidences of melanoma as well, despite not sitting in a glass-fronted cockpit throughout their flights.
How to pick an in-flight SPF
But what about you, the passenger? Well, you are vulnerable as well – and the more you fly, the more exposure you build up.
If you’re a window seat kinda gal, you should be particularly scrupulous about covering your face and any exposed skin with a high SPF, says Jing-Gao, as the dose of UVA you’ll get above the clouds is pretty massive. Better yet, as nice as it is to stare at fluffy cumuli and nimbostrati, just keep that window blind closed as much as you can.
As for what sunscreen to apply, make it one with a high SPF number but, more importantly, with the highest level broad-spectrum UVA protection: look for five stars or (equivalent) four-pluses (PA++++) UVA protection. Make sure the product mentions a cocktail of anti-oxidants as well for additional free radical mopping-up.
Lastly, as planes are famously drier than the Sahara (the desert has an average 25 per cent humidity, a plane comes in at 20 per cent), look for a deeply hydrating or nourishing formula – there are ones to suit every skin type.
The best SPFs to take on a plane
Best sunscreen you won’t feel: Ultra Violette Fave Fluid SPF50+ Ultralight Skinscreen, £37
Equipped with an SPF even higher than 50 and a full four-pluses UVA screen, this fragrance-free fluid also has antioxidant vitamins C, E and B3. It’s ultra-lightweight and non-oily, but skin-quenching nonetheless so it will please those with oily skin, while being hydrating enough to keep dry skins comfy on the plane as well.
Easiest-to-wear protection: Trinny London See The Light SPF50+ Moisturiser, £45
Cosmetically elegant (it has a nice herbal scent) and packaged in a handy pump tube you’ll like whipping out for top-ups as you fly, this SPF50+, PA++++ is rich and silky enough for mature skins but not so oily as to upset those who prefer the lighter side of skincare. There’s plenty of antioxidants as well; it’s as easy to wear as any regular moisturiser.
Best for dry skin: La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMune 400 Hydrating Cream SPF50, £16.72
LRP’s breakthrough UVA-protection hero (it uniquely protects against ultra-long UVA rays) comes in a fluid and a tinted cream, but this one is specially formulated for dry to very dry skin and therefore best for parched airplane conditions. It’s also fragrance-free so unlikely to irritate, even around the eyes.
Best for tinted protection: Ultrasun Face Fluid Tinted SPF50+, £28
Ultrasun’s sunscreens routinely offer the highest level of UVA and blue light protection plus a potent blend of antioxidants. They also are very resistant to breaking down, delivering uncompromising coverage for the duration of your flight. Non-oily, they are deeply hydrating and this tinted fluid doubles as a sheer-colour-correcting foundation that’ll keep you looking glamorous all to way to wherever you are flying.