A Skin Doctor Tells You How to Choose the Right Sunscreen

Do you want to keep your skin healthy and protected? A sunscreen is a must! Find out all you need to know about sunscreens and how to use them

Happy smiling young woman applying sunscreen lotion on her arms at the beach

Sunscreens are products which prevent ultraviolet rays from being absorbed by the skin. They are available in the form of creams, gels, lotions, sprays and now even capsules.

Let us first understand UV rays

Solar radiation comprises UV rays, visible light and infrared rays. UV rays that reach the earth’s surface comprise UVA [320 – 400 nm] and UVB [290 – 320 nm] rays. Visible rays are at about 400 – 800 nm and infrared rays are anything above 800 nm. Wavelengths less than 320 nm are absorbed by the upper layers of the skin, namely the stratum corneum and the epidermis. Wavelengths greater than 320 nm enter the deeper part of the skin, the dermis. All rays cause the breakdown of cell membrane, lipids, structural proteins and DNA of the skin.

Exposure to UVA rays can cause suntan, wrinkles, pigmentation, sun spots and even skin cancer. UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer. Visible rays and infrared rays are said to increase pigmentation [any dark patches on the skin]. To protect the skin from all these rays, we need to use a sunscreen every single day.

What are the ingredients to look for in a sunscreen?

Always look for sunscreens which say ‘broad spectrum, non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic’. Broad spectrum means they offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Non-comedogenic means they are less likely to cause whiteheads. Hypoallergenic means they are less likely to produce allergic reactions or rashes. Physical ingredients are zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and iron oxide. These ingredients form the main constituents of mineral sunscreens.

Safe chemical ingredients are cinnamates such as octinoxate, octyl methoxy cinnamate; ecamsule such a mexoryl, benzophenones, avobenzone; anthranilates such as methyl anthranilate; and salicylates such as octisalate homosalate. For best results, opt for a sunscreen which has both physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients. Some of the newer ones even protect from infrared rays. So if you are cooking most of the time or exposed to harsh indoor lights, use the sunscreens which protect from visible light and infrared rays as well as from UVA and UVB rays. For regular use, one should opt for a sunscreen with SPF 30 and PA +++

The most common questions asked about sunscreens:

1. “My grandma never used sunscreen, yet her skin is flawless,’”said Kriti when I asked her to apply sunscreen every day

Kriti, our grandparents were living in a better environment. The air was less polluted and the ozone layer wasn’t as depleted as it is now.

2. Sunscreens are so sticky, I cannot use them

Not any more. The market is flooded with new easy-to-use sunscreens that are not greasy. Ask your dermatologist or refer to the table at the end of this chapter.

3. Sunscreens make my face look white

The older sunscreens made the skin look chalky and white. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, essential physical ingredients in a sunscreen, were responsible for this. Haven’t you seen cricketers paint their faces white? This is zinc oxide, the best barrier from sun rays. However, one can’t wear a white mask and go out on a regular basis. But now, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are broken into micronized nanoparticles and incorporated into sunscreens. So you get the benefits without the white look.

4. I break out when I use sunscreen

You are not using the appropriate sunscreen. Choose a gel-based sunscreen or a matte one with ecamsule. Oil or cream-based sunscreens can clog your pores, causing blackheads and whiteheads. Look for sunscreens which say ‘non-comedogenic’, ‘gel’, ‘oil-free’, ‘dry touch’, ‘for acne-prone skin’ or ‘matte finish’.

Matte finish sunscreens contain silicones that ensure the pores are not clogged. They also reduce oil secretion and stickiness. They are best suited for people with oily skin.

Water-resistant sunscreens are occlusive and may clog pores. Avoid using them. Do not wear sunscreen for long hours if you tend to break out. If you work indoors and have no exposure to rays, you may wash your face an hour after reaching your office.

5. My skin turns dark when I use sunscreen

All you have to do is change your sunscreen. Avoid ingredients such as avobenzone and titanium dioxide in your sunscreen. Sometimes you may be allergic to these ingredients. Using these could result in darker skin.

6. I don’t step out into the sun; I just sit in my car and reach office. Why should I use a sunscreen?

UVA rays penetrate the glass in automobiles. Laminated glass used on windows offers some UV protection. However, rear side windows are made of non-laminated glass and transmit a significant amount of UVA rays. For adequate UV protection, all your car windows should have dark, protective UV shields which are available as laminated or tinted glass or film. However, as per traffic regulations, these tinted glasses are no longer allowed unless you have special permission. So the bottom line is that even if you travel by car, your skin still needs sunscreen. Similarly, if you are working in chic glass buildings which do not have curtains, you are being exposed to UVA rays.

My friend Karishma loves to sit by her French windows on Sunday mornings and sip her coffee. She is indoors, yet she gets exposed to UV rays. So she does need a sunscreen, even at home. My aunt thinks she has zero sun exposure as she is a homemaker and does not step out of the house during the day. So she doesn’t use a sunscreen. What she doesn’t realize is that she is exposed to sun rays while making her trip to the balcony to water her plants, to the terrace to dry wet clothes and to the bus stop to wait for her kid’s school bus. The short walk from our car to the office door or a walk to the café next door during a break is enough to do the damage.

7. Aditi is an actor and feels that her make-up has enough SPF

Foundation make-up provides SPF 3 to 4, because of its pigment content, for up to four hours after application. BB creams offer up to 40 per cent of the sun protection claimed by them. It is always better to wear a sunscreen first and then layer on make-up that has SPF. There are tinted sunscreens and sunscreens with primers available. These allow the make up to blend well without making the skin appear patchy.

8. Ashfaq says he doesn’t like to use a sunscreen because his face becomes sweaty on applying a sunscreen

Sunscreens which have more chemical ingredients change UV rays into heat. This causes sweat. To avoid this problem, opt for sunscreens with more physical ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

9. Marissa recently had a fabulous holiday in the Alps where it was snowing heavily. Yet, she came back tanned

Snow reflects 80 per cent of the sun’s rays; sand reflects 25 per cent and 80 per cent of the UVA rays that pass through clouds. So you must apply a sunscreen even on a cloudy day or when it is snowing. Remember to apply your sunscreen on all the exposed parts of your body. Physical protection helps a lot when outdoors. Full length trousers, long skirts, full-sleeved shirts and kurtis provide protection from UV rays. If you tend to tan or pigment easily, it is advised that you wear such clothes. Clothes made from tightly woven fabric offer better sun protection than loose ones. Also, darker-coloured clothes offer better sun protection than lighter ones. Wide-brimmed hats, umbrellas and scarves can also be used when outdoors.

10. Rishabh says he leaves for work before 10am when the sun is not very bright. So he doesn’t apply a sunscreen

Well, Rishabh, you are only partly correct. UVB rays are most intense between 10am and 4pm. However, as long as you see daylight, UVA rays are present with a fairly constant intensity. So there is no such ‘safe time’ unless it is before sunrise or after sunset.

11. How will I get my vitamin D if I don’t step out in the sun?

This is a common question. Most people get more than enough vitamin D through regular, incidental sun exposure. And even if you always wear sunscreen, some UVB rays will still penetrate your skin, stimulating vitamin D production. Furthermore, after a limited amount of sun exposure, vitamin D production reaches its maximum and stops. UV exposure beyond this actually breaks down vitamin D. The US FDA recommends a balanced diet and a daily 600 IU vitamin D3 supplement, along with 1g calcium to obtain adequate vitamin D. A diet rich in vitamin D includes fortified milk, cereals, mushrooms, eggs, liver, cod liver oil and fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel.

12. Rimi’s seven-year-old plays soccer and she feels he has turned two shades darker

This is the effect of UV rays. Sunscreen can be applied on children above the age of six months. It is advisable to plan indoor activities between 11am to 3pm. Avoid sun exposure during these hours because rays are the harshest at this time. It also helps to be fully clothed. Caps and hats should be worn. Preferably, use a physical sunscreen with SPF 15. Make sure to use a sunscreen before and after a swim or an outdoor sport.

Examples of sunscreen

Skin Type Sunscreen
Normal Avene VHP SPF5O Sunscreen, UV Smart Daily Sunscreen, Sebamed Multi Protect Sun Cream
Oily La Shield lite, Isdin Fotoprotector Gel, Suncros Matte Finish Soft Gel
Dry Dry Sebamed Sunscreen Lotion, Shadowz SPF 50, Rivela Sunscreen Lotion
Combination Avene Dry Touch, Photostable sunscreen, Suncros Tint
Sensitive Isdin Fusion water, Coola Mineral sunscreen, Z Block Sunscreen
Swimmers Suncros Aquagel, Neutrogena Beach Defense, Isdin Fotoultra Unify Lotion
Excerpted with permission from Skin Rules: Your 6-week Plan to Radiant Skin by Dr Jaishree Sharad; published by Penguin eBury Press

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