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3 questions, 3 answers – Expert interview on sun protection

“Skin doesn’t forget – and it doesn’t forgive anything.”

Sunshine puts us in a good mood and gives us energy. But too much of it can damage the skin and even lead to skin cancer later on. Dr. Ludger Kolbe, Chief Scientist for Photobiology at Beiersdorf, knows just how important proper sun protection is. In this interview, he explains why sun protection is a must, the role of the sun protection factor, and the latest findings of Beiersdorf’s research.

Ludger, what does the sun do to the skin and why is sun protection a must in skin care?

The sun lifts our spirits and gives us energy – but at the same time, caution is advised: the ultraviolet rays of sunlight, known as UV radiation, are not visible to the human eye, but they affect our bodies in various ways. The so-called UVB rays stimulate the body’s own synthesis of vitamin D and thus increase well-being. However, if the skin is exposed to these rays – as well as to UVA rays – over a longer period of time without protection, they can cause damage: While short-wave UVB radiation leads to sunburn and damages the DNA of skin cells, the longer-wave UVA radiation accelerates the aging of the skin and can cause sun allergies. Both UVA and UVB radiation, promote the development of skin cancer. In short: every stay in the sun and every sunburn increases the risk of skin cancer. The skin never forgets and it does not forgive anything, so the right protection from UV radiation, meaning the right sunscreen, is extremely important.

Is it possible to say how much sun is still healthy? And what role does the sun protection factor play in this?

Everyone’s skin is very individual and unique, and that’s exactly what we should tailor sun protection to. Every person has their own so-called self-protection time. This indicates how long our skin can protect itself from the sun without suffering damage. Lighter skin types, perhaps even with freckles and light blond or red hair, have a very low self-protection time of ten minutes – they have to protect themselves particularly strongly from the sun compared to darker skin types and a self-protection time of thirty minutes. The skin of children, for example, only has a self-protection time of about five minutes, so a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30, or even better 50, should be chosen for them.

The sun protection factor indicates how long sun creams, sun sprays and the like protect the skin from the negative effects of UV radiation – i.e., from sunburn or premature skin aging. The higher the sun protection factor, the longer the protection lasts. With a self-protection time of ten minutes and SPF 30, that’s 10 x 30 minutes, so 300 minutes. Bearing in mind, however, that sweating or rubbing against sand or towels reduce protection, the optimum should never be exhausted. The important thing is that as few UV rays as possible penetrate the skin, so SPF 50 is a very good choice – SPF 30 should be the minimum. In addition, the following applies: more is more – so in any case, make sure not to apply too sparingly. This goes for all areas of the body that are exposed to the sun without protection.

Sun protection has been an important area of research at Beiersdorf for a good 80 years. Through the NIVEA, Eucerin, and Coppertone brands, you have achieved many research successes and set milestones in this area. Can you give us some insights here – especially with regards to the latest research results?

NIVEA is the World’s No. 1 Sun Care Brand1 and this success does not come by chance. At Beiersdorf, we are a pioneer in sun care – this applies to NIVEA, but also to our U.S. sun care brand Coppertone. Also, we played a key role in developing and establishing the sun protection factor almost 50 years ago. The sun protection factor made it possible to scientifically compare the effectiveness of sunscreen products for the first time. But our research did not stop there. Time and again, we set milestones and generated important findings. Under the NIVEA and Eucerin brands, for example, we have developed products that combine sun protection and the treatment of hyperpigmentation in a single formula. With Eucerin Actinic Control, we launched a fluid with very high UVA and B protection two years ago. With a sun protection factor of 100, this product is particularly suitable for sun-sensitive skin and for preventing actinic keratosis and light skin cancer. 

A current and very special highlight was the development of an individual sun protection product for a girl with the rare light disease erythropoietic protoporphyria, or EPP for short. It is caused by a rare genetic defect and sunlight on the skin causes severe pain due to a specific chemical process. Our research has shown us that special light-scattering pigments need to be added to the sunscreen for this girl. These prevent the light from penetrating the skin. The development of the product was made possible primarily by our extensive research activities around the harmful influence of blue light from sun radiation, known as HEVIS light. Although the product, which is specially tailored to the girl, does not cure the disease, the cream was able to contribute to improving the girl’s quality of life – a great success!

1Source: Euromonitor International Limited; Beauty and Personal Care 2023ed; NIVEA in the category Sun Care, incl. Sun Protection, Aftersun and Self-Tanning; in retail value terms, 2022 data.

Dr. Ludger Kolbe, Chief Scientist for Photobiology, Beiersdorf AG

Dr. Ludger Kolbe is a renowned biologist and specialist in photobiology. His search for new approaches to dermatological and cosmetic skin care has already resulted in numerous patents and scientific publications. Dr. Ludger Kolbe is a member of important international committees, societies and expert panels.

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Kathrin Erbar

About the editor: Kathrin Erbar

Kathrin takes us on a journey to the fascinating field of research and development at Beiersdorf. Before exploring Beiersdorf’s DNA, she was doing the communication for HR related topics, such as diversity, leadership or New Work. She also used to be responsible for financial communications at Beiersdorf for several years.