ABC to SPF of sunscreens

Since hiding from the sun to protect your skin is not an option, sunscreens are your next best bet

woman's hands with a bottle of sunscreen

Your skin is your shield against the environment. This shield has to be protected too, particularly from sunlight, which has a profound effect on it—the UV rays damage the skin [photodamage] quickening the ageing process. The rays cause visible structural changes within the skin, creating many of the visible effects like unwanted pigmentation, age spots, wrinkles and uneven texture and tone, which we typically associate with old skin.

The best strategy against this is encouraging photoprotection [nature’s mechanism to minimise damage to the body when exposed to UV radiation]. Towards that, it’s important to know the correct usage of sunscreens. Before we discuss that, let’s quickly understand how the different radiations affect our skin.

Ultra-violet radiation

UV rays or ultra-violet radiation are harmful rays emitted by the sun. These rays are divided into different energy levels from shortest to longest wavelengths: UVA and UVB.


UVA rays penetrate deepest into the skin and are often referred to as the ‘ageing rays’. In high doses, these rays damage the underlying collagen causing darkening, pigmentation and acceleration of the ageing process. Skin affected by the UVA rays looks scaly, dry, wrinkled and leathery with dark patches.


UVB rays are primarily responsible for sunburns and are often referred to as the “burning” rays.

What are sunscreens and how do they help

Any substance or material that protects the skin from UV radiation can be termed as a sunscreen. Sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin. Since they play such an important role in your skincare, everyone—men, women and children—should use them throughout the year irrespective of the season.

Sunscreens must be used in conjunction with other safety steps for optimal sun protection. These measures include limiting outdoor activity during peak exposure time [11am to 3 pm] when the sun’s rays are the strongest and most harmful; wearing adequate clothing; sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat. However, such protection isn’t enough at all times, so your best bet, and one that is quick and easy to protect your skin from the sun, is using sunscreen.

Selecting your sunscreen

Based on your personal liking, select from the range of sunscreen lotions, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.

  • While lotions and gels work best for oily skin, while cream applications are ideal for dry skin.
  • Products with higher Sun Protection Factor [SPF] may contain higher sunscreen oils, accounting for the occlusive greasy feel [and breakouts in people with oily skin].
  • Nowadays sunscreens come with a wide combination of elements—antioxidants, fairness ingredients or hydrating moisturising ingredients—incorporated in them. Choose one that is best for you. If you are unsure about the combination that is right for your skin type, consult a dermatologist.
  • Spray formulations can be used on larger body parts—hands, legs, and back. They are good to use on kids, since kids don’t stay still enough for you to apply a lotion.
  • Sunscreen wax sticks are usually for lips.
  • In case you’re allergic to certain skin products, go for Para Amino Benzoic Acid-free, fragrance-free and hypoallergenic sunscreens.

How to apply a sunscreen

Using inadequate sunblock is the biggest mistake we make; most people use only 25 – 50 per cent of the recommended amount. This is how you need to use sunscreen for maximum benefits:

  1. To ensure that you get the full SPF of a sunscreen, apply a good palm full or about two or three tablespoons per application to all your exposed parts [and not just your face]. Only then will you get adequate protection.
  2. If you wear makeup, apply the sunscreen before applying it. In fact, you can even choose one of the numerous SPF foundations available. But if you’re prone to breaking out, choose a non-comedogenic sunscreen [something that
    does produce not aggravate acne] as it will not block the pores.
  3. Apply sunscreen liberally and evenly about half an hour before you venture out. This allows the ingredients to fully bind to the skin. Pay particular attention to the back of your neck, ears, and the areas of the scalp with thin hair.
  4. Perspiration, exercise, swimming and towel-drying removes sun creams from the skin, so reapply every few hours. Even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied every two or three hours after taking part in water-related activities.
  5. Don’t reserve the use of sunscreen only for sunny days. Even on a rainy or cloudy day, up to 80 per cent of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays can pass through the clouds.

Getting the SPF right

SPF is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. The SPF number indicates the amount of time a person can be exposed to sunlight without getting sunburned. For example, without a sunscreen a person would normally turn red after ten minutes of exposure to the sun.

A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would allow the same person to multiply that initial burning time by 15, which means it would now take the person 15 times longer to burn, or 150 minutes.

Comprehensive cover

When buying sunscreen remember that not all products protect you from all kinds of sun rays. Hence, use broad spectrum sun protection to stave off photodamage.

Broad spectrum sunscreens have a combination of specific UVA and UVB agents and offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

Using sunscreen is not extraordinary; like a facial, it’s fundamental to skincare. If you follow this approach and apply sunscreen the right way, your skin will thank you today and in the years to come.

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