“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’99. Wear sunscreen.”
“If I could offer you one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it,” starts a song in famed film director, writer and producer Baz Luhrmann’s first album release, 'Something for Everybody'. (For the record, he is behind The Great Gatsby film adaptation).
The advice was prescient, for now – a bit more than two decades later - UV protection sits squarely as the foundation of the skincare and beauty empires worldwide that are worth more than a whopping $500 billion. No amount of moisturising, serum use or facial treatments matters if you are not using sunscreen.
From basic skincare to cancer prevention, it has a crucial place in a present where more UV rays populate the Earth, amidst a diminished ozone layer. But, this pressing fundamental need has resulted in the creation of a dizzyingly wide range of products – forget original sunscreens, we now have translucent SPF powders, SPF-included lotions, foundations, bronzers, eyeshadow and SPF mascara even. Would we then need to use all of these? Layer them even, for extra protection?
The million-dollar question also exists – how in the world does one reapply sunscreen every two hours over a perfect makeup look amidst busy work lives? One essential rule that most of us silently ignore is that of sunscreen reapplication – we slather on some sunscreen, head to office or school perhaps and hope it stays on all day. The reality is that we should find a convenient way to reapply it throughout the day for optimal impact.
Gulf News speaks to Dr Seham Ahmad Almustafa, dermatology specialist at HMS Mirdif Hospital, Dubai and Dr Amna Shah, consultant dermatologist at King’s College Hospital in Dubai to find out more.
Why do we need refuge from the sun's rays?
According to WorldWide Cancer Research, about 80 per cent of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation – and it is also the fifth most common cancer amongst men and women as per the At Melanoma Foundation. Regardless of whether it’s a grey cloudy day, or you are indoors or on a snowy ski slope, with a depleted ozone layer – more and more UV rays are reaching the Earth’s surface.
UV radiation is transmitted in three wavelengths – UVA, UVB and UVC, where UVA has the longest wavelength and UVC has the shortest. Most UVC is absorbed by the ozone layer, so we only need to protect ourselves from UVA and UVB, Dr Shah explains. She says, “UVB is most causative of sunburn or blistering and strongly associated with both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer."
UVA penetrates deeper in the skin than UVB, and can penetrate through windows. It is also known to contribute to the development of skin cancer, and is most associated with skin ageing leading to wrinkles and pigmentation.
“UVA penetrates deeper in the skin than UVB, and can penetrate through windows. It is also known to contribute to the development of skin cancer, and is most associated with skin ageing leading to wrinkles and pigmentation.”
Dr Almustafa says, “It will not only affect the skin in the long term as many people think, with effects like photo carcinogenesis or photo aging - it will also affect the skin acutely or in the short term.”
Some effects of sun damage include sun erythema of first-degree (only involving the top layer of skin) sunburn, tanning, dark spots, wrinkles or dryness of the skin. Dr Almustafa adds that with intense repeated UV exposure, skin cancers may develop.
Decoding labelling: SPF, UPF, PA+, and broad spectrum
When buying sunscreen, how can we know what product to choose? That begins with ensuring that you are well protected against both UVA and UVB rays.
Sunscreen’s SPF or Sun Protection Factor level is an indication of how much longer it will take for your skin to burn when using the product – and only refers to protection against UVB rays. For example, SPF 30 means that if it originally took 20 minutes for sun burns to form in direct sunlight exposure, it would now take 30 times 20 minutes, or 600 minutes for this.
The ideal sunscreen should have a sun protection factor of SPF 30 or above.
Dr Almustafa says, “Now, there is SPF 30, SPF 50 and 100 in the market. Really, in interest of sun protection, there is not much difference between SPF 30 and SPF 80.
“Anything above SPF 30 will block around 97 per cent of UV rays, and for 50, it will block around 98 per cent of UV rays so there is not much difference. The ideal sunscreen should have a sun protection factor of SPF 30 or above.”
According to Dr Shah, the formula for the SPF number used is the number of seconds it takes for a patch of skin to slightly redden with sunscreen applied, divided by the number of seconds it takes to slightly redden with no sunscreen applied.
However, only products labelled ‘broad spectrum’ include protection against UVA rays as well. The PA (Protection Grade of UVA) grading rates the sunscreen’s level of protection against UVA rays, and is based off of the Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) method. Basically SPF, but for UVA rays, and these are what the ratings mean:
- PA+: When a product’s PPD is between 2 and 4 offering some protection.
- PA++: When a product’s PPD is between 4 and 8 offering moderate UVA protection.
- PA+++: When a product’s PPD is between 8 and 16 offering high UVA protection.
- PA++++: When a product’s PPD is 16+ offering very high UVA protection.
However, this system is not widely used or internationally accepted yet.
The textile version of this, that comes especially handy for blistering days at the beach on holiday, is UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor – that tells you how much UV radiation (UVA and UVB) can pass through the cloth. For example, UPF 50 means that 1/50 of UV radiation can make it past the cloth, protecting you from effectively 98 per cent or the rest.
The world’s UV protection catalogue
Now it all comes down to choosing the products that fit your daily UV protection agenda. Dr Shah explains that sunscreen is part of a spectrum of sun protection techniques. They can be widely divided into physical and chemical protections. As a physical barrier, you can often wear long sleeves, hats and sunglasses to lessen worries about chemical ingredients in products. You can also buy designated UV resistant swimwear, and sleeves as well.
Dr Almustafa says, “This is the best thing – even when you apply sunscreen, you have to wear long sleeves and you have to protect your skin as much as you can from the sun. Wearing sunglasses is important too, as even your eyelids can be affected by the sun and we can’t apply too much sunscreen on our eyelids.”
For the chemical SPF products, the main factors are that they should be broad-spectrum (protectant against both UVA and UVB rays), a minimum of SPF 30 and you should use an amount that will be effective. If not broad-spectrum, the sunscreen is designed to protect against UVB rays only.
1. Sunscreen creams
Physical or mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier to reflect sunlight and doesn’t get absorbed into the bloodstream. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation and converting them to heat.
Dr Almustafa says, “In science, the recommended amount they say is for each square centimeter of our body we have to apply two grams to milligrams. For the face, roughly we need around half teaspoon, and for the body – roughly 2 full tablespoons.”
This is to be used as a final step in your skincare routines, and should be suited to your skin type.
Dr Shah says, “Those with acne prone skin would prefer a light non-comodogenic formulation whereas those with sensitive or dry skin would prefer a more moisturising and well tolerated sunscreen. If you suffer from pigmentation, it is important to also block visible light therefore using a sunscreen containing iron oxide.”
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), sunscreen gels are good for hairy areas such as the scalp or male chest, creams are best for the face and dry skin and sunscreen sticks are good to use around the eyes.
For children, Dr Almustafa recommends physical or mineral sunscreens: “If you have a small kid and you want to apply sunscreen for him, you have to go for physical one, not the chemical one safety-wise - to decrease skin irritation.” If you have sensitive skin and are staying away from sunscreen due to concerns about irritating ingredients - your safer option is a mineral sunscreen, as chemical sunscreens can be sensitizing and absorb into your skin.
2. Spray-on sunscreens
“The challenge with spray sunscreens is ensuring enough has been applied to provide adequate coverage of sun exposed areas, it is therefore recommended to apply enough to each area of the body and rub in thoroughly,” says Dr Shah.
Dr Shah warns that to avoid inhalation problems, spray-on sunscreens should not be sprayed near the face and mouth.
3. SPF-included makeup for face
Dr Shah says, “SPF contained in makeup is not usually sufficient for adequate protection therefore a sunscreen is recommended in addition.”
You should also make sure they are at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum for added protection. This does not mean that you should rule them out: In fact, a 2021 study by Korean researchers published in the UK-based Skin Research and Technology Journal found that layering sunscreen and SPF-included makeup products greatly increased effective SPF compared to a single application of each product. This is as it provides additional source of UV protection and more evenly spread coverage of your skin.
4. SPF powders
Now, translucent SPF powders that are in compact or even direct brush form – where the product is contained within the brush and sunscreen powder is automatically applied.
This is a great option for reapplying over makeup in seconds throughout a busy day – you can even do it from your desk or a quick sprint to the washroom to refill your SPF ammo. What’s more is that it can double up as setting powder.
5. SPF hair mists and mascara
Dr Shah says, “Although there is little research supporting the effects of UV radiation on hair, it is thought that UV radiation can damage hair proteins, therefore having a detrimental impact on hair structure and colour - especially in those with dyed hair.”
Moreover, another serious concern is that UV can damage the scalp, especially in those who have sparse hair covering their scalp. Dr Shah adds, “This can lead to actinic (causing photochemical reaction damage) sun damage, and increases the risk of development of skin cancer including non-melanoma skin cancer on that region of the body.”
Dr Almustafa says, “Maybe we will get just a few changes like a dryness in the hair, brittling the hair – it will be external. We are more concerned about the scalp and not the hair per se.”
6. UV nail protection
Although gel manicures famously use UV rays to dry and seal the polish, there are products labelled as UV protective for nails. According to Dr Almustafa, nails do not require specific UV protection.
7. SPF lip products
According to the AAD, a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher is recommended as skin cancer can also form on the lips.
Protected skin, all day – every day
Your ideal routine would look like this:
- Liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of a minimum SPF 30 and UVA and UVB protection on all exposed areas of skin.
- Reapply every two hours when outdoors, and if swimming, reapply immediately after. Dr Shah recommends seeking shade especially when the sun is strongest between 11am to 3pm.
- If indoors but near a window, touch up your sunscreen every two hours as well by using a convenient method such as a translucent SPF powder that can go on over makeup. Dr Almustafa says, “If you have a big window, and you have sun inside your room, you also have to reapply while you are indoors.”
- Dr Almustafa also recommends being aware of whether there are UV-emitting sun lamps in your indoor spaces as well.
- When possible, wear sunglasses, hats and long sleeves for extra protection, especially when facing extended sun exposure as when outdoors on hikes or at the beach. Using designated UPF clothing could especially come in handy when on beach or hiking vacations.
At the same time, Dr Almustafa says, “Sometimes, we will not apply the exact amount that we should apply, and we should take care as some patients will not distribute the sunblock correctly.” That is quite often seen during hurried sunscreen applications before going to the beach. So take your time, make sure that you that you are slathered with sunscreen evenly and thickly before heading out to subject yourself to UV-rich rays.
What about the corals?
However, with increasing studies about environmental damage, chemical buildup in our bodies, and sunscreen ingredients detected in everything from breastmilk to urine, it’s important to be informed on what ingredients could pose risks.
An estimated 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes into the world’s coral reefs each year and are affecting the fragile ecosystems that house much of the ocean’s life. According to US-based activist Environmental Working Group, who also offer labels to certify product safety, some ingredients to look out for are oxybenzone (officially banned in Hawaii), and octinoxate, and research also shows potential risks for octocrylene, avobenzone, octosalate and homosalate in higher concentrations due to absorption. These are used in chemical sunscreens, that work by chemically breaking down UV radiation before it penetrates skin.
Baz Luhrmann’s song ‘Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen’, details advice for the graduating class – on celebrating your youth, loving your body, accepting inalienable truths and working hard – and finally ends on a crucial note:
“But trust me on the sunscreen.”