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Understanding sunscreens PART 1: What is a sunscreen? What does a sunscreen do?

on May 03, 2021


What is a sunscreen? What does a sunscreen do?

If we want to answer this in short, well, a sunscreen is a personal care product that is used to protect the skin from the negative effects of light, including and especially sunlight.

To get this in greater detail, let us start at the beginning, which as you will see, was not very long ago!

In the 1990s, the Nambour study was done in Queensland, Australia in around 1600 residents over a 4 year period. The results showed that there was no significant increase in skin aging in those who used sunscreen regularly. And it also showed that regular sunscreen users were 24% less likely to show signs of advanced skin ageing, compared to people who only used it occasionally.

So let us redo our definition : Sunscreens are personal care products, that WHEN USED REGULARLY, protect the skin from light induced ageing.

Let me make that even better: Sunscreens are personal care products, that WHEN USED REGULARLY and CONSISTENTLY, protect the skin from light induced ageing.

But, isn’t it true that sunscreens are for skin lightening and skin brightening? Yes, and no!

No, because sunscreens are not skin lightening agents, or skin bleaching creams by themselves. They only protect your natural tone and complexion, they protect you from skin damage and prevent skin tanning. So many people use sunscreens with the idea of becoming fair! Of course, by reducing the sun induced pigmentation and skin spots, sunscreens help the skin stay clear, but they are not fairness creams.

To add more, sunscreens make sure that the pigment lightening creams or treatments that you undergo, have good longevity. They do this by protecting you through the treatment course, to maximize your benefits, and, once your treatment is all done, sunscreens make sure that your skin stays good! It is a fact that skin procedures done without proper sunscreen cover, do not really give you as much benefits as they could, would and should!

Let us take a close look at this. Let us say you are undergoing a pigment removal laser treatment, and you are not on sunscreens – the time taken for your pigmentation to reduce increases, the speed of clearance decreases and this conversely, may increase the number of sessions that you need to do! Further, you may also experience a rebound in pigmentation, if you do not learn proper sun protection measures.

Regular use of sunscreen, by itself, can give enough room for your natural pigment clearing cells to clean up pigmentation, say like a post pimple mark. However, with constant sun exposure, it’s very difficult for effective pigment removal by the body’s own cells.

So, is a sunscreen all about pigmentation?

No, there is a bigger aspect called collagen protection. Collagen is one of the primary building blocks of the skin, and is found in much higher concentrations in young skin, as compared to aged skin. In fact, collagen content decides how healthy the skin looks. If you think a baby’s skin is glowing, much of that comes from the high collagen content in the baby’s skin. With time, and as early as the early 20s, collagen starts breaking down. The result of this is the wrinkling and sagging that is commonly called as the ‘onset of the ageing process’. Dullness of the skin also happens, as younger collagen increased skin reflectance compared to aged collagen.  Now, one of the main causes for ageing of collagen is sun, light and sunlight exposure. Collagen supplementation is coming in as the next big thing in skin care, but we must also know how to prevent collagen breakdown on sun exposure. We will see the exact mechanism of how the sun messes with your collagen in the upcoming posts. For now, let us go forward with the fact that sun exposure and light exposure causes collagen breakdown and speeds up the pace of ageing.

Since Indian skin predominantly ages with pigmentation and surface textural changes, and since sunscreens seem to be an easy to use, DIY skin care to prevent such changes, it becomes a no brainer that sunscreens form the foundation of all skin rejuvenation efforts.

Sunscreens come in all forms – lotions, gels, creams, mousses, sprays, sticks, and many more! Another way to classify sunscreens is to look at the kind of protection they provide. Does your sunscreen protect you more against UVA or UVB? Is only UV or ultraviolet protection enough, or do we need to add some IR or infra red protection. And let us say, a person uses sunscreen for their melasma, they are still not fully protected if their sunscreens do not provide much protection against visible light. So what spectrum should you be looking at?

Further, some sunscreens come with additives which claim skin whitening benefits – are these combo sunscreens any effective? Then of course, the physical versus chemical sunscreens, and what does organic in a sunscreen even mean?

Sunscreens are a huge topic, and hugely important topic, and it is useful to know our personal care products in some detail. So, I shall break down these questions above in the upcoming posts, and explain the nuances of choosing a good sunscreen for you. Meanwhile, feel free to take a shortcut and check out the best sunscreens in India that we have curated for you!