One product you should never skip in your daily skincare routine is sunscreen, whether you are inside or outside.
Natural sunlight might help give the best photographs but can often leave you with irreparable skin damage. UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) rays cause photoaging and lead to premature formation of fine lines, sunburn, tanning, pigmentation, blistering and even skin cancer. There's also research that shows exposure to blue light from computer screens causes skin damage.
To get protection against visible rays, experts suggest, you need antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid, and when combined with sunscreen, they act as a perfect shield against all the damaging light and pollutants.
“The main purpose of a sunscreen is to protect our skin from short- and long-term effects of UV radiation. However, sunscreens today have evolved a lot and new formulations even come with a tint or a moisturiser, and even vitamins and nutrients for the skin,” says Apratim Goel, cosmetic dermatologist, Cutis Skin Solution, Mumbai. Sunscreens are even available in oral formulations, which can be popped as a pill. Regardless of whether it’s sunny outside or not, you need sunscreen, as UV rays aren’t visible to our eye and are potent even on cloudy days. Also, sweating means that you need to reapply sunscreen every two to four hours, but you don’t need to reapply that often when indoors.
Depending on your skin type, pick a formula (gel or oil-based) that won’t irritate your skin, Dr Goel suggests. “Sunscreen alone is not enough for complete UV protection. Physical protection like wearing a wide-brimmed hat or using a scarf to cover the face is still recommended. Additional protection can be taken in the form of antioxidants, topical or oral formulations like vitamin C and glutathione.”
Physical vs chemical sunscreens
There are two main types of sunscreen, physical and chemical. “Physical sunscreens are formulated with ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and create a cover on the skin to block or reflect the rays. One will often see international cricketers with white patches on their nose and cheeks, which is a physical sunscreen. It does not get absorbed and is safe for children, and during pregnancy. However, the white cast it leaves is a drawback, though newer formulations are better,” says Smriti Naswa Singh, consultant dermatologist and cosmetic dermatologist, Fortis Hospital, Mumbai. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing high-energy UV rays and releasing them as low diffuse energy UV rays, thus preventing them from reaching the skin and damaging it, explains Dr Goel.
She warns that chemical sunscreens contain common photo allergens, and should be avoided if you have a history of photoallergy or contact dermatitis. Experts often prefer physical sunscreens for children, but sunscreens should only be used on children above six months of age. “It’s very common for women in India to develop pigmentation and melasma due to UV exposure from tube lights and stovetops,” says Dr Singh.
What is SPF and broad-spectrum?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. Higher SPF does not mean better protection always. SPF 15 protects you against 93% of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. For regular use for Indian skin, 30 SPF is enough, or even an SPF 15 with broad-spectrum protection works. What really matters is that you use it every day and reapply. “Sunscreen is the last step of your regime and should be applied to clean skin. Sunscreens are often oil-based, and people end up applying more than necessary and complain of greasiness and eruptions. One fingertip unit is enough for the face and neck. Dot the face and use fingertips to help it absorb gently. Don’t pour it on your palms and rub them together but use the dot method. They come into effect after 15 to 20 minutes of application,” says Dr Singh.
The bad ingredients you should stay away from
Side effects related to certain ingredients in sunscreens aren’t uncommon so you need to watch for names such as enzophenones, camphor derivatives (such as 4-methyl benzylidene camphor or 3-benzylidene camphor) and cinnamate derivatives (such as octyl methoxycinnamate, isopentyl-4-methoxycinnamate; octocrylene). More studies are still needed to understand their long-term effects. Two common ingredients, oxybenzone and avobenzone, are FDA approved too but still classified as a health hazard and environmental hazard.
Also read: Your sunscreen might contain a carcinogen
“Sunscreen ends up in the ocean when we swim or take a shower, and common ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, nano titanium dioxide and nano zinc oxide have been associated with bleaching and destruction of coral reefs and even affect the life cycle and reproduction of fish and other marine life,” says Dr Goel, who encourages people to look for reef-safe sunscreens.
Dhara Vora Sabhnani is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.