Sunscreen is an often ignored step in skincare routine deserves a permanent place on the shelves of all people who care about the health of their skin. Sunscreen helps protect the skin from the sun's harmful rays, protecting the skin from sunburns, pre-mature aging, and skin cancer.
This article briefly showcases the features of sunscreens and talks about the important things to consider when purchasing a sunscreen. This article does not go in-depth into the why of using sunscreen, but we will touch on the points so that you are aware of the importance of its position in a skincare routine.
What is a sunscreen
A sunscreen is a product (usually with a milky or creamy consistency) and consists of a variety of ultra-violet (UV) ray filters. These help to block out the UV rays from reaching your skin. Ultraviolet rays are invisible to the eye, and are present even in low amounts of visual sunlight. So even if it is a cloudy day, there most definitely dangerous UV rays out and about, waiting to pounce at your skin! Talk about ultra-violent!
The amount of UV rays that are out and about in the sky will largely depend on where you live. If you are living near the equator, then you most definitely are receiving full blast of sunlight and consequently, full blast of UV rays directly. The further away you are from the equator, the lesser the amount of UV rays present due to being angled away from the sun. This general rule is not always true, as seasonality also comes into play. Summer and spring time is also characterized with high amounts of daylight, resulting in greater exposure to UV rays as well.
To simplify the above, let's just use this easy phrase: If there's sunlight, there's UV rays.
Voila. Easier to remember, right?
UVA and UVB
UV rays contain two main subtypes that we are concerned with, and that you probably did not learn about in high school science class. They are called Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). Thankfully, Ultraviolet C gets filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere so we don't have to talk about it.
UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin, reacting with DNA and other molecules in the inner layer of the skin through a damaging process called oxidation.1UVB, on the other hand, penetrates only up to the outer layer of the skin. It then gets absorbed by your DNA, causing mutations (not like in X-Men) that can later result in cancer.1 UVB rays are also responsible for the painful sunburns and lobster-coloured skin that you have probably experienced before. 2
Thus, due to the way UVA and UVB rays interact with our skin, UV rays are known to be carcinogenic (meaning that they cause cancer).
Sunscreen and Vitamin D production
It is true that by applying sunscreen to your skin, you would be reducing Vitamin D production significantly.3 This issue is only significant if you live in a region where you experience long periods of low sunlight, such as long periods of dark winter with only occasional exposure to sunlight. However, using sun protection for your face is still recommended, as it is considered the most sun exposed and sun damaged compared to the rest of the body.3 If this is your situation and Vitamin D supplements are not an option for you, then you can satisfy the vitamin D requirement by allowing for five to fifteen minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week.3
If you live in an area where you experience year-long sunlight, you are already producing more Vitamin D than required, through exposure of your body skin.
The bottom line is that your face should always be protected by sunscreen.
Choosing a sunscreen
Now comes the fun part of choosing the product! Like before, get a list of popular sunscreens, and we'll start filtering out products from the list based on your individual situation and needs.
Before that, however, let's go over some key concepts that you'll see while doing your shopping.
Sun Protection Factor
The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) indicates the level of sunburn protection provided by a sunscreen, a result of filtering out UVB rays. The sunburn protection level is in terms of time exposed to the sun. Thus, a sunscreen with SPF30 would protect for 30 times longer than if there was no sunscreen applied. 4 Naturally, logic implies that a higher SPF level would provide stronger protection against sunburns, and that is most certainly true.5
Depending on the type of activity that you are doing for the day, your sunscreen's SPF level has some leeway to change. For example, if you are mostly in the office for most of the day, your sun exposure is rather minimal and hence, a low SPF product of around SPF30 may suffice. On the other hand, if you are going to be outdoors for most days under direct sunlight, a high SPF product would be preferred. Choose the SPF level according to the protection that you would be needing.
As a purchase guiding principle, SPF50 is rather versatile and should be able to suit most situations, from intense outdoor sport to indoor activities. When in doubt, opting for a higher SPF allows for some margin of error if not applied regularly or if under-applied.
What is PA and what is with all the plus signs
PA represents the Protection Grade of UVA and it is an assigned grade, based on the product's photoprotection factor of UVA. This method of grading originates from Japanese regulations, and is based upon how efficiently UVA rays are filtered out to prevent darkening of exposed skin.6
Simply put, the more plus signs that there are, the higher the UVA protection. When purchasing your sunscreen, aim for at least PA+++ or PA++++.
Broad spectrum sunscreens
As you can see from above, SPF and the PA indicator both indicate how much UVA rays are being blocked in a sunscreen. But what about UVB rays? That is where the term broad spectrum comes in. If labelled as “broad spectrum”, the product will also block UVB rays. In order for a product to be labelled as “broad spectrum”, the United States Food and Drug Administration requires that the sunscreen passes a test called the Broad Spectrum Test.7
There are certain types of sunscreen application methods. Some are sprays, some are rub-on creams, and others are roller-ball based. In general, rub on creams provide most consistent and even coverage, while sprays and roller-ball sunscreens do not guarantee even coverage as it is hard to visually see if you are applying it correctly and evenly.8 Even when using sprays, rubbing it into the skin is recommended as a measure to ensure good coverage. 8
One of the reasons for using a spray-on sunscreen, is if you are re-applying sunscreen and do not want to come into contact with your skin. For example, after applying sunscreen and makeup, you will need to reapply the sunscreen after two hours. Since there is already a layer of makeup, you can use a spray-on sunscreen as a way to avoid touching and messing up the makeup layer.
Final purchase pointers
Whew, finally, we're done with the sunscreen jargon. Hope you weren't too lost in all the new terms. To sum up, when buying your new sunscreen, look out for the following:
- High SPF, from SPF30 to SPF50. Even higher if you are going to be under intense sunlight.
- PA+++ or PA++++. More plus signs are better.
- Only sunscreens labelled as broad spectrum
- Avoid sprays, opt for rub-on sunscreens as your primary sunscreen.
Using a sunscreen
Using sunscreen is really simple. Follow the instructions on the bottle closely, and you can't go wrong. In general, it involves ensuring a generous amount of sunscreen is applied and rubbed into the skin. Thereafter, you should re-apply the sunscreen every two hours.
When applying, apply the sunscreen to both your face and neck areas, including the area behind your ears. These spots are often missed, and are actually highly exposed to the sun on a daily basis. Wait for the product to be absorbed completely before proceeding with subsequent products, to avoid pilling.
In practice (and reality), most people are not going to remember to re-apply so often, so it helps to have calendar reminders at fixed timings of the day to remind you to re-apply sunscreen, and is especially important if you are outdoors. If you are going to be indoors and are not exposed to much sunlight, you can afford to be more relaxed with the re-application, or even don't re-apply at all (though not recommended, of course).
Evaluating a sunscreen
Since this isn't the first product you have introduced into your routine, by now you should be getting familiar with the whole product testing workflow. Due to the use of filters in the sunscreen, there may be a higher chance of irritation or allergic reaction to the sunscreen, so proceed cautiously. Remember to patch test!
The sunscreen should not leave an oily feeling on your skin. Aim for a balance between moisturised and slightly matte, and adjust according to your skin type (oily or dry).
Furthermore, the sunscreen should not be leaving a visual white cast on your skin. If so, it might affect subsequent product steps such as makeup. It will also result in an uneven skin tone between your face and other areas like your upper chest area.
Also, note the smell of the sunscreen. A strong fragrance may be off-putting for some. If you enjoy using products with scents, then great! Otherwise, opt for a fragrance-free alternative.
You now have one of the most important piece in the skincare routine puzzle. It may just be sunscreen, but it is enough to get you on the right track towards a healthier skin. Just applying sunscreen regularly, you have a leg up over a majority of the population that doesn't even bother with sun protection.
Your full routine should look something like this:
- Oil-solvent cleanser (only in evenings)
- Normal cleanser (only in evenings)
- Sunscreen (only in mornings)
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Karla C. Guerra; Jonathan S. Crane. (2019). Sunburn. ↩︎
Holick MF (2008). Sunlight, UV-radiation, vitamin D and skin cancer: how much sunlight do we need? ↩︎
Schalka S, Reis VM. (2011). Sun protection factor: meaning and controversies. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, 86(3), 507-15. doi:10.1590/s0365-05962011000300013 ↩︎
Williams JD, Maitra P, Atillasoy E, Wu MM, Farberg AS, Rigel DS. (2018) SPF 100+ sunscreen is more protective against sunburn than SPF 50+ in actual use. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2017.12.062 ↩︎
Latha, M. S., Martis, J., Shobha, V., Sham Shinde, R., Bangera, S., Krishnankutty, B., … Naveen Kumar, B. R. (2013). Sunscreening agents: a review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 6(1), 16–26. ↩︎
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Sunscreen Labelling FAQ ↩︎
Barr, J (2005) Spray-on sunscreens need a good rub. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 52, Issue 1, 180 - 181, Letter to Editor ↩︎