Sunscreen sense

Many of us use sunscreen regularly. But do we use it the right way?

Woman applying sunscreen

In a tropical country like India, sunscreens are an essential on every personal beauty shelf. Unfortunately, it is not only an underused but also an incorrectly used product. The first step you can take is to buy the right sunscreen.

Which to choose

There are hundreds of sunscreens—commercial and medical—in the market to choose from. To decide which one works best for you, get to know more about your ‘enemy’. You are fighting against two types of ultra-violet radiation in the sun’s rays: UVA and UVB. UVA causes immediate, temporary tanning and photoageing [sagging or wrinkling of skin]. UVB causes sunburn [redness, pain and peeling], delayed long-lasting tanning and photoageing. Both rays can cause skin cancer. Therefore, for complete protection from the harmful effects of the sun, your sunscreen must give adequate protection from both.

The only thing people consider when buying a sunscreen is the ‘SPF’ quotient as it is the most advertised aspect. However, ‘SPF’ is an indicator of only UVB protection, NOT UVA! As per an international standard called ‘Boots Star Rating’, the UVA protection a sunscreen offers is supposed to be mentioned separately as a star rating on the pack, ranging from 0 to 5 stars. For the Indian climate, you need a sunscreen with minimum three stars. A mere handful of sunscreens boast a three- or four-star rating—these are obviously the best. You also need to keep in mind your skin type. Oil free, gel-based sunscreens are available for acne-prone individuals and moisturising ones for those with dry skin. Fair-skinned people require sunscreens with a higher protection because the lighter the skin, the more easily it burns. For wheatish complexion [olive skin], a sunscreen with SPF 30 and 3-star UVA protection suffices.

Get a sunblock with higher protection if you are prone to sun allergy, any sunlight-aggravated disease or if you are undergoing a dermo-cosmetic treatment such as skin peeling, polishing or laser therapy.

When to apply

Sunscreens must be applied daily, in all seasons including monsoons, and irrespective of whether you are indoors or outdoors. Sunscreens are a must even indoors as the light from fluorescent lamps and computer screens also affects your skin, though not as much as direct sunlight.

How to apply

Apply the lotion/cream on all exposed areas, which most often means your face, arms and legs. Don’t forget your neck and also the area around your collar bones, if exposed.

Do not be stingy with the amount applied—sunscreens give you the mentioned protection only if you use them in the right quantity. Using sub-optimal quantities decreases their potency manifold. For instance, using half the needed requirement can decrease protection by 80 – 90 per cent! Using inadequate sunblock is, in fact, dangerous because you tend to subject yourself to long hours of sunlight in the erroneous belief that you are protected. And when this happens chronically, it magnifies the risk of skin cancer. So, how much is enough? A coin-sized quantity for the face and neck, ditto for each arm, and double that for each leg.

But for continued protection, reapply, reapply, reapply! The effect of a sunscreen lasts not more than 3 – 4 hours, so aim for at least three applications between 8am and 5pm.

Waterproof sunscreens are now available that are specifically for use in a swimming pool, at the beach, in a water park or even for those who sweat a lot. These bind to the skin and resist getting washed off with water. Even if you use one of these, it is still recommended that you reapply every 80 minutes or every time you towel yourself dry in case you are swimming or are in the water continuously.

Most sunscreens also act as moisturisers but those with extremely dry skin may need added moisture. If that’s the case, apply the moisturiser first and the sunscreen after a couple of minutes. If you need to use make-up—foundation, powder, colour cosmetics—it has to be used over the sunscreen. Do not rely on just the sun protection factor mentioned on the foundation as it’s usually insufficient.

If you are supposed to apply a medicated cream or ointment, say an acne cream, apply this first, then the moisturiser [if required] and then the sunscreen. The sunscreen has to be the topmost layer. The exception to this rule is when you have to use a subgroup of sunscreens known as ‘second skin’ sunscreens that need to interact chemically with the skin to become active. These go as the first layer, then the moisturiser and so on. Your dermatologist will guide you about using these, if s/he prescribes them to you.

As with any other pharmaceutical product, keep checking the expiry date and do not use the sunscreen beyond it. Sunscreens protect you from sunburns, reduce tanning and pigmentation, slow down skin ageing, and help prevent skin cancer. Regular use will allow you to enjoy your moments in the sun!

This was first published in the April 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Parul Kolhe
Dr Parul Kolhe, MBBS, DDV, is a cosmetologist, hair specialist and dermatosurgeon. She runs her own cosmetology clinic, 'Tvacha' at Bhandup, Mumbai. She has won national acclaim for her work on chemical peels for acne, pigmentation and skin rejuvenation as well as skin grafting for vitiligo. She is an avid trekker and writes poetry in her spare time.


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