How Sunscreen Works: Why Sunscreen is Important for Skincare

For those with low levels of melanin and a tendency for sunburn, sunscreen is probably one of your most applied skincare products on your skin whenever you brave it out in the sun. For the rest of us, we usually limit our sunscreen usage to days out sunbathing at the beach or laying poolside. But what if I told you that sunscreen should be one of the essential parts of your skincare routine regardless of whether you're prone to sunburn? Would you be surprised to know that you should be using sunscreen every time you step out of the house - even if it’s not that sunny outside? Well, that is precisely the case. We should be using sunscreen as much as possible to take care of our skin for its longevity and health. Sunscreen is vital for skin care not just to protect us from painful sunburn, but also wrinkles, discoloration, aging, and most importantly, skin cancer. The sun is the most powerful enemy to our skin, and honestly, we need to be doing more to fight back. Sunscreen is our weapon of choice when it comes to protecting us from the sun.


How does sunscreen work, and what ingredients should I look out for?

Sunscreen works by absorbing or reflecting ultraviolet rays (UV) from the sun. 2 common types of UV rays from the sun are UVA and UVB rays. According to the Yale Scientific, physical particles in most sunscreens work to reflect and scatter UV rays. Simultaneously, other chemical compositions in the sunscreen absorb the UV rays and convert them into a low-level form of heat. For most sunscreens in the market today, you can almost guarantee that UVB rays will be tackled, but make sure to look out for sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” to make sure UVA rays are tackled as well. UVB rays are the rays that attack your skin’s upper layers, the primary cause of sunburn, while UVA rays are known to penetrate deeper into our dermis.


Overall, 17 active ingredients are approved by the FDA for sunscreen, but two of the most common active sunscreen ingredients are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Titanium dioxide works by reflecting UV rays from the skin and does a terrific job of blocking UVB rays. Zinc oxide is an ingredient that you will see in most “broad spectrum” based sunscreen as it tackles both UVA and UVB rays. Zinc oxide works by doing a similar job as titanium oxide but also having the added effect of absorbing UV rays and breaking it down into heat. This is why zinc oxide is known as one of the most effective ingredients for sunscreen. 


What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. What SPF measures is how long UVB rays take to give your skin sunburn when compared to when you don’t use sunscreen. For example, in a perfect world, if it took you 5 minutes to get burned by the sun without sunscreen -  a product of SPF 15 would take 75 minutes to give you sunburn (15x multiple). However, this is only the case when sunscreen is perfectly applied and isn’t affected by water, sweat, or grime. If a sunscreen has a high SPF, it does not mean that you do not have to reapply. If you’re going to be out in the sun for a long time, make sure to reapply at least once or twice. The general recommendation for sunscreen is one that is at least SPF 15.


So why is sunscreen so important for skin care?

UVB rays in the form of radiation are the main culprit of skin cancer and sunburn, which is why it’s a primary target for most sunscreens. Meanwhile, UVA rays are known to penetrate our skin deeper and cause most of the wrinkles and aging caused by the sun. Recent research also suggests that UVA rays may also be contributing to skin cancer by compromising our immune system’s response to damage in our DNA. This is why when it comes to both skincare and protection from skin cancer, the best bet is to use sunscreen, especially one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. 


Most of the products we use in our skincare routine today are reactionary, which means that we are trying to solve or fix a problem that has already occurred - whether it’s wrinkles, aging, dry skin, or breakouts. Meanwhile, sunscreen is preventative and keeps your skin healthy. It won’t necessarily fix the skin problems you already have, but it will help prevent and minimize future issues with your skin as you grow older. For example, UV rays from the sun breakdown collagen, which is known to give our skin a plump and youthful complexion - using sunscreen could help prevent UV rays from doing this.


In my opinion, sunscreen is one of the most vital products to have in your skincare product routine. Skincare is the practice of taking care of your skin, and you can’t take care of your skin if you’re not fighting back against your skin’s most powerful foe - the sun. So get out there and buy some sunscreen for your everyday routine, especially before you step out in the sun. 

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