If the word “sunscreen” brings images of summer, sand and BBQ on the beach and you can’t really relate it to your daily skin care routine -yes, that includes winter as well- you should definitely keep reading this post.
Sun is great. I think we can all agree with that. I personally love the warmth of its rays on my skin, especially in spring, when it’s not too hot and the weather is perfect for travels and romantic strolls in the park with Gab.
But sun also carries a dangerous side called UV (ultra violet) rays: they are responsible for creating free radicals, which are unstable molecules that break down collagen in the skin. Over time, UV exposure and free radicals lead to premature aging.
There are two types of UV rays that are able to breach the ozone layer that protects our planet and land right on our skin: UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate the innermost layers of the skin and are responsible for premature aging; UVB rays can’t penetrate deep in the skin, so they are mostly involved with tanning and burning its upper layers.
Adding sunscreen to our daily skincare ritual, as well as being mindful of sun exposure, helps defending skin from both types of UV rays, which are equally dangerous, since they are both linked with skin cancer and long-term harm for our health. And yes, that includes using sunscreen in the middle of winter, when outside is creepy dark and freezing and you keep wondering where the sun has escaped to -ironically enough, UV rays can penetrate that barrier of awful weather conditions and reach your skin in a breeze (damn it!).
Ingredients in sunscreens
There are two main families of active ingredients you can find in sunscreens: physical and chemical ingredients. Despite what their names might suggest, both families are “chemical”: it’s their composition and method of interaction with UV rays that changes.
Disclaimer: also on this subject I had to do my homework and go through a lot of researches, since as I’ve already explained to you I’m not a chemist nor a doctor nor a dermatologist. What I’m about to explain could therefore not be complete or 100% accurate, so in case of doubts or skin problems you’d better talk with your dermatologist, who I’m sure is much more acknowledged than me on the subject -that’s why years of studies and a degree make a difference ; )
However, to have a general comprehension on the subject, follow me through this journey on the wonders of sunscreen, starting with…
Chemical ingredients are often also referred to as “organic“. I know it may seem that the terms “chemical” and “organic” clash against each other -or at least that’s what I thought the first time I heard about it- but in reality it all makes perfect sense if your consider that in chemistry, “organic” simply means chemical compounds associated with living species -specifically, a carbon backbone. Thus in chemistry, organic means “containing carbon”, with no connections with “biological”, “organic farming”, “GMO-free” or “limited pesticides” concepts that are so trendy these days.
What happens when UV rays hit organic ingredients is that they bind together, thanks to the chemical bonds that hold the ring of carbon molecules together: so, basically, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays, creating a chemical reaction that change UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin.
Find the most common chemical UV filters in sunscreens and their pros and cons in the table below:
The main physical ingredients, Zinc Oxide (ZnO), and Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) are also chemicals, just a different type of chemical. ZnO and TiO2 are not carbon-containing molecules (“organic”), but rather inorganic UV blockers. Many sunscreen brands refer to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide also as “mineral” sunscreens: despite this name, they’re not typically found in nature, but rather created or synthesized in labs by oxidizing zinc and titanium metal.
The reason they’re called “physical” filters comes from the way they protect the skin from UV rays: unlike chemical ingredients that absorb them, these inorganic ingredients physically block the sun’s rays by deflecting them.
More on their pros and cons can be found in the table below:
Keep in mind that most of these sunscreen actives are oil-soluble (only dissolve in oil, not water), a condition that gives sunscreens their water-proof and sweat-proof properties. In order to properly remove sunscreen in the evening, remember to use an oil-based cleanser!
How do I choose the best sunscreen for my skin?
The most important thing to consider -always- is that the choice is always extremely personal and subjective. There’s no universal better ingredient -or better combination of ingredients- that works for everyone. We need to find what suits our own skin the best -so a little bit of patch test is warmly suggested, rather than just relying on what we find on the product’s label.
Apart from this consideration, there are some things we might want to understand before purchasing a sunscreen for the first time.
As said before, UVA and UVB rays are both extremely dangerous and we need to use a sunscreen that is able to protect our skin from both types. It isn’t enough to just protect against one of the UV rays, because if you protect against UVB rays, you will still get damage from UVA rays and vice versa. Therefore, some widely available sunscreens contain both physical and chemical ingredients to provide broad spectrum protection.
To achieve a “broad spectrum protection”, there are two indicators you want to consider in the label: SPF and PA (or PPD).
SPF and PPD/PA
Generally speaking, SPF indicates the level of protection from UVB rays, while PPD/PA indicates the level of protection from UVA rays.
The acronym SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor: an internationally recognized standard that determines the UVB rays protection time. It comes with a number after it that has been sort of a mystery for me for a looong time. I remember my summer days as a teenager on a southern Italian beach, always going for a low SPF number because, what the hell, I wanted to get tanned! As you can easily understand, the equation at that time for me was: high SPF = wasted tanning.
When I’ve finally decided to decipher that number, I’ve felt a huge amount of abashment coming down on me (but I was all grown-up by then, so tanning was not really my primary concern anymore).
SPF is nothing but a multiplier telling how long the sunscreen extends your burn-free sun time. In other words: if your skin takes five minutes to burn (this information is really subjective and changes from individual to individual) and you put on SPF 30, now you have 150 minutes to enjoy the sunshine without having to fear those mean UVB rays. SPF 50? 250 minutes of crazy shopping in the crowded streets of your favorite neighborhood.
Of course, the time can change according to your skin type, to the climate you live in and other hundreds of variables that can make the calculation pretty hard to manage. Want to make a safe bet? Two hours should do, no matter what SPF you’re using. If you’re getting sweaty or swimming, do it a little more regularly and you should be all set : )
Things get a little bit more complicated when in comes to UVA rays, since there is no international standard for measuring how well UV filters protect against UVA rays. The most common one is the PA (Protection Grade of UVA) system, the Japanese measurement of the sun coverage broadly used throughout Asia, which is based on the Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) reaction reading at 2-4 hours of sun exposure.
PPD has a numerical value and the higher the number, the better the UVA protection it offers; PA, on the other side, is often leveled as PA+, PA++ and PA+++, with the more plus signs the more protection from UVA rays.
The way PPD and PA values are determined may differ from company to company and country to country, so it’s very hard to compare products considering only this measure.
Generally speaking, consider buying products with an SPF value included between 30 and 50; as for PA, I’d go for +++ (equivalent to PPD>8) to insure the maximum coverage from UVA.
How much sunscreen should I use?
Dr. Elizabeth K. Hale, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, gives some important advice on this topic on the american skin cancer foundation website: “To achieve the Sun Protection Factor (SPF, which protects against the sun’s UVB radiation) reflected on a bottle of sunscreen, you should use approximately two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. In practice, this means applying the equivalent of a shot glass (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to the exposed areas of the face and body – a nickel-sized dollop to the face alone. If you’re using a spray, apply until an even sheen appears on the skin.”
My favorite sunscreens
This is, as already explained, a very personal and subjective selection of sunscreens that I’ve been using for a while and that react very well with my skin.
Three of them use 100% physical UV defense (무기자차 –mugijacha in korean), with Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as main ingredients:
- Missha | All Around Safe Block | Sebum Zero SUN | SPF 50+ PA+++
Probably my favorite sunscreen of all times! Not only it perfectly absorbs into my skin without leaving any white cast, it also really keeps the “Sebum Zero” promise in its name, by perfectly balancing the oil production in my skin all day long. Amazing product with a very distinctive, yet subtle flowery scent (and also extremely cheap! Only 9800 WON, approx EUR 8,00…how convenient is that?);
2. Skinfood | Aloe Watery Sun | No Sebum | SPF 50+ PA+++
With a very short ingredient list, containing Aloe Vera leaf extract as the first ingredient, combined with Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, it assures a fresh and calming consistency, while providing excellent coverage from both UVA and UVB rays. It has that very typical sunscreen-y scent, but it absorbs very quickly, mixing perfectly with make up. Available in Korea for 14.000 Won (Eur 11,50);
3. Innisfree | Daily UV protection cream | No Sebum | SPF 35 PA+++
Again, a 100% mineral filters product, that also includes sunflower oil and green tea extracts from the volcanic island of Jeju. It’s very slightly colored, so it won’t leave your skin completely white (at least, if your skin is pale enough to match with its color -and mine is) and also very lightly scented. An overall great product for daily use, available in Korea for 12.000 Won (approx Eur 10,00);
4. I only use one chemical sunscreen (유기자차 – yugijacha in korean): Tonymoly My Sunny Watery Sun Essence (SPF50+ PA+++). It was suggested from my friend Gina, who I trust 100%, so I had to try it when she recommended this product…and she was absolutely right! As expected from sunscreens based on organic molecules (homosalate in this case), it has a very watery, runny consistence, that melts so easily on the skin! And I personally love its scent, that resembles a fresh flowers bouquet. It costs 13.800 Won in Korea (approx Eur 11,00).
- Search for a sunscreen with a good UVA/UVB protection since both UV rays are dangerous for our skin;
- Run a patch test on a small portion of your skin to see if you suffer from sensitivity to any of its components (even though chemical ingredients are suggested to be more comedogenic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that physical ones are a perfect match for you!);
- Once you find your holy grail, apply generously on your body and face -and remember to re-apply at least every 2 hours.
- Enjoy the sun!
Watch my Youtube video if you want to see these products in action!
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