Sunscreens are not cosmetics!

It is officially summer in Chennai, the place said to have perpetual summer. Dozens of sunscreen advertisements pop up wherever I go. I roll my eyes because most of them are misleading and at least half of them are useless. Where I come from, sun protection is a fairly new concept. Sunscreen ads in India do a very poor job of informing the people what they are meant for and even perpetuate a lot of misconceptions about sunscreens.

As someone who suffers from photosensitivity and has to wear sunscreen every day whenever I head out in the sun, let me debunk the common misconceptions about sunscreens. I will also help you identify the right sunscreen and find out whether you need one in the first place.

Let us start with the basic question. What is the purpose of sunscreen? If you thought that it is to prevent tanning and to maintain your skin complexion, then I’m sorry to say that you have fallen into the traps of advertisers. Most sunscreen ads focus on helping maintain skin complexion, brightening skin tone and avoiding tanning. The products usually come with concealing, mattifying, fairness-improving and other such properties that make people believe that the essential purpose of sunscreen is to make the wearer look fair.

The reality is that sunscreens are not just for avoiding tan. They are meant to protect your skin from the ultraviolet rays which can cause sunburns, skin cancers, photoaging and also tanning. You might be aware that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Did you know that the majority of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to UV radiation in sunlight and can be prevented if proper sun safety measures, including wearing sunscreen, are used?

If an advertiser mentioned that wearing sunscreen will prevent cancer, there will be very few takers. In a country where the sun is worshipped, people will mock you if you call sunlight as a possible harbinger of cancer. However, everyone knows that we tan in the sun and unfortunately, colourism is still widely prevalent in our society. It makes sense that the advertisers tap into the insecurities of people who aren’t ivory fair (i.e., most of the population). Now they have a huge market and their products sell well.

Some sunscreen advertisements also gloss over how sunlight can bring about premature ageing, which is an actual concern, but even these ads highlight the prevention of tanning and the enhancement of fairness because that is what sells. While antiageing is a booming market, it targets a smaller section of the population, whereas the desire for fairness is imbibed to people, especially girls, since toddlers which makes it a much larger market.

Due to the way sunscreen ads project themselves, people generally classify sunscreens as cosmetics and most people I know don’t usually buy them. If they wanted fairness, they would rather buy a fairness cream which sends a stronger message and if they haven’t fallen into the clasps of colourism, they don’t see the point of sunscreen or any other product that targets skin colour.

Why is this a problem for me? Well, I need to wear sunscreen every single day, even in winter, even in early mornings, even in evenings when the sun is about to set, even if I’m going out only for five minutes, even if it is raining,… you get the picture. If I don’t wear sunscreen and let sunlight touch me even for a short time, I get sunburnt.

Since sunburns are so rare where I come from that sometimes even doctors wonder if I’m hypochondriac, let me explain what I go through. When I get a sunburn, it usually doesn’t show on my skin, but I have a lingering burning feeling as if I’m holding a candle flame on my skin continuously for 3-4 days. If I treat it immediately, it doesn’t leave a mark, but it would still hurt for at least a couple of days. And all this is a very minor burn, which I experience very frequently during summer. So March to June, I’m almost always hurting. Chronic invisible pain (in my case, burn) is something I experience in peak summer, which is the month of May.

If I haven’t planned properly or I didn’t use a sweat-proof sunscreen during peak summer and let sunlight torch me, I end up getting a more severe kind of sunburn. At this point, the burn would actually be visible and I would look like I’ve fallen down and scraped my skin or gotten burnt by fire (I guess, UV rays do burn me like fire in a sense). When the burn is visible, the immense pain and/or burning from the affected area lasts for at least a week.

Because people have associated sunscreens with cosmetics and fairness, I’m judged as being vain for religiously applying it. People assume that I’m making things up and avoiding the sun to stay fair. While I don’t generally care about other people’s opinion in this regard, it can be infuriating when ignorant folks decide to bless me with their “gyaan”.

I get so much unsolicited and scientifically unsound advises that I don’t bother explaining or arguing with people anymore. For a lazy girl like me, having to wear sunscreen and reapplying frequently is a pain in itself. Having to listen to illogical, judgemental and annoying talks from certain people is worse. That is why I hate many sunscreen manufacturers for their advertising strategies.

Another annoyance for me is that until recently, I had to buy my sunscreens online from foreign manufacturers and could not claim them as medical expenses. Why couldn’t I just buy them in a local cosmetic shop, you ask? I have some rules when it comes to sunscreens and only few meet that criteria.

Here’s how I choose my sunscreens and I recommend that you do too:

  • It has to be a physical sunscreen, not a chemical sunscreen.

Now don’t be tricked into thinking that physical sunscreens don’t have any harmful chemicals. A chemical sunscreen is one that gets absorbed by your skin and when you step out in the sun, it absorbs the harmful UV rays and stops them from penetrating deeper into your skin. A physical sunscreen forms a layer on top of your skin and literally acts as a barrier for UV rays. I prefer the latter because the chemicals used are usually safer compared to the former.

  • The SPF rating should be at least 30.

If a moisturizer, BB cream or lip balm touts a sun protection of SPF 10, ditch it immediately. If your aim is protection from UVB rays (the ones that burn), you need at least SPF 30. However, anything more than SPF 50 is not necessary. While SPF 30 protects you from 96.7% of UVB rays, SPF 50 is only slightly better and protects you from 98% of UVB rays. The next time you see an SPF 100 sunscreen, know that it isn’t required. In fact, certain countries forbid sunscreen manufacturers from displaying things like SPF 100 because it can mislead the public and require them to display SPF 30+ or 50+ instead.

  • It must be a broad-spectrum sunscreen, offering UVA protection.

Many sunscreens neglect UVA rays (possibly because its effects are not immediately seen). UVA rays cause ageing, while UVB rays cause burns (A for ageing, B for burns). Make sure that you buy a sunscreen that has the term “broad-spectrum” mentioned in it. Another point you can check is for PA rating. If it has only SPF rating and no PA rating, it doesn’t protect you from UVA rays. This would mean that it doesn’t protect you from photo-ageing and does not prevent skin cancers caused by UVA rays.

  • It must be sweat-proof

Where I come from, the humidity and intensity of sunlight are high and we tend to sweat profusely in summer. Most of the sunscreen applied on the skin comes off while sweating, leaving you vulnerable to the UV rays. If you are outdoors in a place that makes you sweat or participating in any active sport, opt for a sweat-proof sunscreen.

  • It must not claim anything to do with fairness, concealing, brightening, whitening, de-tanning, anti-aging, beauty benefit, foundation, etc. Its only job is protection from UV rays and that’s it.

The problem with sunscreens that do more than sun protection is that there are many unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients. While it is convenient to apply a bit of BB cream that takes care of everything, I would recommend that you slather on enough sunscreen as a primer or base and wear your makeup on top of it. This way, you apply the desired amount of each product.

This is important because you should use approximately two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimetre of skin. Okay, let us skip the math and make it easier. If you look up how much sunscreen one must use, you will get instructions ranging from one-third to half a teaspoon to be used on your face and neck. This much product is required to achieve the SPF/PA protection claimed on the label. With most BB creams or tinted moisturizers, if you actually use that much product, you will end up looking like a clown. So the BB cream or lip tint with added SPF can be used for touch up or for layering, but not as the sole sunscreen.

  • No sticks and sprays allowed.

I used to fancy sunscreen sticks because a lot of good, organic, cruelty-free brands manufacture sunscreen sticks with nothing but goodness as ingredients, but they are inconvenient to use and possibly unhygienic. While sprays are handy, most sunscreen sprays are toxic if you inhale them. As for sunscreen wipes, I’m sceptical about the ones I’ve come across so far and won’t comment on them since I haven’t used them. I recommend sunscreens in the forms of lotions, gels, and creams. Sticks are still great for using on clean skin.

  • It has to be environment-friendly and reef safe

I’m not crazy enough to go to the beach in summer where I have a huge risk of sunburn. And I don’t know if I’d ever go anywhere near a coral reef barrier, but I want my sunscreen and any other product I use to be environment-friendly. So I either buy products that are certified reef-safe or I look up the ingredients and brands and make sure I buy products that are not causing much harm to the environment. Most sunscreens easily available in the market fail this rule, which is why I’ve had to shop online.

Until recently, I could find no product in stores that satisfied most of these rules and had to spend a lot of money on imported brands. Lucky for me, my new dermatologist suggested a local brand that checks all my requirements and I get it in a medical shop. Finally, I have a prescription for sunscreen and I can claim medical reimbursement for it!

However, I get strange looks from people when they see that I claimed a sunscreen in my medical reimbursement, despite knowing that I have a prescription for it. They think I’m swindling when it happens to be the most critical medical purchase for me. Tired of explaining over and over about the purpose of sunscreen, I decided to write an article about it and spread awareness.

Each person has a different threshold to withstanding UV rays. Apart from unalterable factors like skin/eye/hair colour (representing melanin content) and genetics, changeable factors like latitude, altitude, season, current climate, surrounding environment, etc., also come into play when determining how long a person can stay in sunlight without skin damage.

How do you know if you need sunscreen? If you feel your skin slightly burning with sun exposure or getting reddish, you might want to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF 15. Less than that does not cut it and SPF 30 should be ideal (I always recommend SPF 30). A tan is considered as a sign of sun damage, so based on your preference, you can use sunscreens if you tan easily.

If you get rashes, pigmentation, tanned patches, white patches, burn marks, pain, swelling, blisters, skin peeling, headaches, nausea, fever, chills or fatigue after sun exposure, make sure you consult a dermatologist. If you have no such symptoms and feel absolutely fine after hours in the sun, then you should be good to go without sunscreen.

Note: I am not a doctor. I am just a girl who has been dealing with sun sensitivity for almost a decade. I write only from my experience. Please consult a dermatologist for more reliable and sound advice on sun safety.

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