Sunscreen 101: Everything you need to know about sun protection - sunscreen

Regardless of skin colour, dermatologists and even general doctors advice that we all wear sunscreen whenever we’re outside and sometimes, even when we’re indoors because of the sun rays coming through the window.

Wearing sunscreen is one of the best and easiest ways to protect our skin from sunburn – which causes hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone, premature aging such as dry skin, wrinkles and skin cancer.

Do I need Sunscreen if I’m dark-skinned? - sun protection black skin
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It’s true that dark-skinned people produce more melanin – a chemical that gives skin colour and absorbs the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. In fact, people with dark skin have a natural skin protection factor (SPF) of up to 13 and filter twice as much UV radiation as fair-skinned people.

With that said, the sun can still be harmful and dark-skinned people still get sunburn and skin cancer that can go undetected until it’s too late because it’s difficult for the normal eye to spot on dark skin.

Health experts advise that everyone take preventative measures against sunburn and skin cancer. No one should consider themselves immune!

Types of sunscreen

A sunscreen is a compound (or lotion) that blocks, deflects or reflects the sun’s rays. To be effective, it’s advised to apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside.

There are two different types of sunscreen, chemical and physical.

Chemical sunscreens use up to a dozen ingredients that, when applied, are absorbed in the top layer of skin. They react with the skin to absorb UV rays and convert them into energy before they become harmful. They tend to be light and usually made for the face.

Physical sunscreens on the other hand are sometimes called “natural or mineral” sunscreens and contain two ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Together, they sit on top of the skin and deflect or reflect the sun’s rays. 

Think of physical sunscreens as a shield, while chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin. 

What is SPF?

Sun protection factor or (SPF) is a measure of how much UV radiation is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (i.e., in the presence of sunscreen) relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin. As the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases.

SPF represents a sunscreen’s ability to protect against a specific portion of ultraviolet (UV) light called UVB. UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer. 

There are two other portions of UV light: UVC rays (which don’t pass the earth’s atmosphere) and UVA rays (which are also responsible for skin cancer as well as skin aging). 

To be fully protected, it’s advisable to always go with a sunscreen that is broad spectrum to protect against both UVB and UVA rays.

What does the SPF number mean? - everything you need to know about sun protection

All sunscreens will display a number that is followed or preceded by the letters SPF (sun protection factor). Remember the SPF only refers to the sunscreen’s potential to block UVB rays and not UVA.  SPF numbers range from 2 to 50+.  The numbers tell you the time the skin will take to turn dark with the sunscreen versus the amount of time it will take to darken without the sunscreen. So if you have appropriately applied an SPF 15, it would take your skin 15 times longer to start to darken compared to having no sunscreen on. 

So if your skin normally darkens after 10 mins in the sun, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun for 150 mins.  The higher the number the longer the protection. 

However, SPF is actually a measure of the degree of protection it gives you from UVB rays and should not be used to determine the length of sun exposure.

An SPF of 30 allows about 3% of UVB to penetrate the skin and an SPF 50, about 2%.  This does not seem much but can make a big difference in certain skin types.

Which sunscreen should I use?

The best sunscreen is the one you will use regularly and in correct quantities.  The type of sunscreen will depend on your skin type and the amount of time you spend in the sun. 

Types of sunscreen types you can choose from

Water resistant:  These are good for use during water activities, they will need to be reapplied, however, no sunscreen is truly waterproof.

Spray sunscreen:  Sprays are easy to use, just spray onto the skin until it appears wet and then rub in with your hands. They should not be sprayed directly on the face or the head. 

Mineral or Physical sunblock: This is perfect for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin, as they are less likely to irritate the skin.

Natural sunscreens: Sunscreens labelled as natural tend to be mineral-based therefore containing zinc or titanium. They are good for immediate protection.

Broad Spectrum: This means that there is protection against both UVA and UVB. This should be part of any sunscreen you apply.

How much sunscreen should I apply?

The advice is to apply sunscreen every two hours and more often if you sweat or have been in water. 

The best sunscreen for dark skin tones

People with darker skin tones should choose sunscreens that look invisible and don’t leave a white cast behind.

Modern sun technology has come a long way and most come with extra skincare benefits and are impressively fast-absorbing.

The best choice of sunscreen is one that protects broadly (says broad spectrum on the packaging) and is right for your skin type so for instance, choose one that is hydrating if you have dry skin and mattifying if you have oily or combination skin.

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