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 at them because I know that at least half of them are useless, while the rest are missing the point. As someone who suffers from photosensitivity and has to wear sunscreen year round whenever I head out in the sun, let me debunk the misconceptions about sunscreens. I will also help you in identifying the right sunscreen and finding out whether you need one in the first place.

What do you think is the purpose of a sunscreen? If you thought that it is to prevent tanning, 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 protecting from tan. The products usually come with concealing, mattifying, fairness-improving and other such properties that make people believe that the essential purpose of a sunscreen is to make the wearer look fair.

Sunscreens are not just for avoiding tan; they are meant for preventing sunburns and skin cancers. 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 worshiped, 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, colorism is still widely prevalent in Indian 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.

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 I hope. If I don’t, I get sunburnt.

I look like I’ve accidentally burnt myself in a candle fire or like I’ve fallen down and scraped my skin but the reality is that it was merely sunlight that burnt me. Not to mention the immense pain and/or burning from the affected area. Because people have associated sunscreens with cosmetics, 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 shit from 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 and could not claim them as medical expenses. Why couldn’t I just buy them in a local cosmetic shop, you ask? I have a few rules when it comes to sunscreens and only a 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.

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

Many sunscreens neglect UVA rays (possibly because its effects are not immediately seen). 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.

  • It must be sweat-proof

Where I come from, the humidity and intensity of sunlight are high and we 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, 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. Also, the products do only what they are designed for, no frills attached, and will do their job properly.

  • 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. I recommend sunscreens in the forms of lotions, gels, and creams. I don’t trust any sunscreen wipes that I’ve come across so far and won’t comment on them since I haven’t used them.

Until recently, I could find no such product in stores 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 a 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 a 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 color (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 a 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, while SPF 30 should be ideal (I always recommend SPF 30). 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 are good to go without a 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 a more reliable and sound advice on sun safety.


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