Everything you need to know about Sunscreens

IMG_4406.JPGMore than a decade ago, I was hooked to this song by Baz Luhrman.  This was my instant pick-me-up and still is.  You know when your skin is feeling super dull, you take that face mist out of your glove box and shower your face in it?  The “Sunscreen” Song to me acts like a mist for my soul.  The song has wisdom imparted in the most simple words and the lyrics and music is catchy too.  So if I could offer you one tip for the future, SUNSCREEN would be IT (whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my more meandering experience).  There is just one problem with the song.  He doesn’t recommend “which” sunscreen.

I knew I wanted to do the sunscreen post when I met Lenna in Alleppey during my Coastal Kerala tour.  It was a hot sunny afternoon and we were walking to the boat jetty.  On the way, she paused to take out a small jar of this thick white cream and slathered it on her cheeks, nose and forehead.  This instantly reminded me of the white paint-like thing on cricketers’ faces during matches.  “Is that a sunscreen?”, I took a guess.  She nodded.  She went on to tell me that this was the only sunscreen she used and it cost 40 INR.  She put to shame the expensive sunscreen I had in my tote.  Then she went on to explain how she was over-sensitive to Indian sun because she was from Russia and that she didn’t care if people stared at her “funny” face as long as she knew she was healthy.  I took a liking to her that very moment.

Later that night, I became obsessed with finding active ingredients in sunscreens and sunblocks. It was sad how nearly all Indian content about sunscreens is typically about just listing the information that one can anyway read from the product carton and how there is a dearth of important details that actually might help one in making an informed choice rather than buying what everyone is buying.  Now, I’m no expert myself, but having spent hours scouring legitimate info about sunscreen as a lifestyle product, I find myself in a better position to decide which ingredients I do or do not want in my sunscreen OR what points to mention to my dermatologist when I ask her for a sunscreen advice.  So I’m just putting it out there.  Here goes:

  1. Let’s get the difference between UVA & UVB out of the way first.  To put simply:  UVA is Ultra Violet Aging & UVB is Ultra Violet Burning.  Apparently, UVB rays damage the more superficial layers of epidermis and that’s where most of the “burning” and “reddening” happens, right?  UVA on the other hand penetrates into the deeper layers of skin and is more associated with skin cancer.  While UVA can penetrate glass and clouds and thus can harm your skin even inside your car or home if you have blinds open, UVB typically affects you the most when you step outside when the sun is at its peak between 10AM to 4 PM OR on higher altitudes.
  2.  Sunscreen Vs. Sunblock  For the longest time, I thought they were the same thing and couldn’t care less about the difference.  But it’s interesting you see.  Again, to put it simply:  Sunscreens typically have ingredients that protect you from UVB (aka the protection of superficial layers of skin).  These are mostly chemical ingredients that filter sun rays.  Sunblocks on the other hand have “physical” (or mineral) ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that form a physical layer on the screen and BLOCK both UVA and UVB.  It is these mineral ingredients in sunblock that sometimes leave a white cast on the face and make your face oilier than thou.  I, personally, prefer products that leave white cast because that just means extra protection and I know the tinge won’t last long anyway.

    It’s a pity there aren’t many brands that make mineral or physical sunscreens in India.  There are a few sunscreens though, that are broad spectrum (which means they protect from both UVA and UVB).  So apparently, they have some ingredients that will block the sun rays.  One of my favorites is Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock (read, it’s a sun “block”).  It contains an ingredient called Helioplex which was created by Neutrogena to block both UVA and UVB.  On dermatologists’ recommendation, I also like Suncros Matte Sunscreen Gel which is also a blend of mineral and chemical ingredients.  Laroche Posay ‘s Mineral Sunscreen was another favorite of mine.  Too bad it was drawn out of Indian Market.  None of these aggravated my sensitive skin or caused breakouts.  Too bad it was drawn out from the Indian market.  I would have loved using Avene very high protection Cream, but it “may have” caused some irritation to my skin.  Might work for a more resilient skin type.  La Shield which works pretty well for my friend who has dry (and non-sensitive skin), but it broke me out mildly.

  3. What is  SPF.  My friend who has a dog and an erratic work schedule hates it when she has to go out in scorching sun to walk her dog.  The fact that this routine tans her face made her buy Lotus Sunsncreen with SPF 70.  We laughed at how consumers fall for marketing tactics.  The logic behind SPF is pretty confusing to the consumer.  I didn’t know either, until I read that SPF ACTUALLY means how much longer will your skin be protected from “burn” (UVB) when you wear a certain number of SPF.   For example, SPF 30 will protect your skin from burn 30 times longer than if you were wearing no sun protection.  Does that mean higher SPF, say 70 is better because it will ensure 70 times longer protection?  No.  Because the sun block will wear off with sweat, so the protection will wade off anyway.  It is hence recommended to wear a sunblock with SPF between 20 to 50 and smirk and walk away when you spot any product that boasts SPF ten thousand.  Also, remember Ross giving the same advise to Elizabeth (FRIENDS reference for extra emphasis).
  4. Ingredients to look for:  While it may be very lucrative to buy the best brands available on the market (guilty of that), I now am very picky about ingredients present or absent in the product.  In sunblocks, it is always a good idea to look for mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in addition to chemical ingredients.  AVOID products with oxybenzone since it is a synthetic estrogen that can disrupt your hormones.


Do you have any questions or recommendations about Sun Protection products in India?  Do leave in the comments.  

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