Last night, I saw a friend for dinner. His face was so burnt it was practically day glo. Like, more red than mine after running 5k on a relatively chronic hangover, with red powder paint getting launched at me every few steps. Pretty red, then. And I’m not sure why, but this pissed me off. I asked if he’d ever heard of sunscreen (I’m a school year older than him so I can do this sort of patronising sh*t with some legitimacy), to which I was quoted an apparently popular acronym: RGB. Or, red goes brown. Apparently that’s a thing. I tried vaguely to let him know in boy-friendly terms that this was a horrible idea. I’m not convinced he even heard me. So this is for him, and anyone else out there confused about sunscreen. Because let’s be honest – no one signs up for wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer. Unless they believe in RGB, of course.
So. To get back to absolute basics, there are two types of sunscreen: chemical, and physical. Many sunscreens now have a combination of the two. The only brand I’ve come across that uses purely physical blocks is Alumier MD (FYI, something like this is great for oilier or sensitive skin types, as physical screens are less likely to be pore-clogging). The trouble with the chemical sunscreens is that the chemicals they use often contain hormone disrupters, which may cause certain cancers, particularly linked to the endocrine system. The other downside to chemical sunscreens is that they protect the skin by creating a chemical reaction on the skin that changes UV rays into heat, then releasing the heat from the skin. This means: a) the chemicals reach a stage where they have literally been exhausted, so you need to re-apply, even if you haven’t been sweating / swimming etc. And b) you really do need to apply around 20 minutes before sun exposure, since you need time for the chemical reaction to happen. If you’re confused as to what sort of sunscreen your go-to brand is, look at the ingredients. Things like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone are chemical filters.
Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. Things like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are commonly used, and you’ll know you’re using a physical blocker because it’s much harder to rub in, since the consistency will be thicker and more opaque. Of course, the downside to a physical blocker is that you have to be WAY more diligent in your initial application and top-ups, since any inch of skin you don’t cover will literally be exposed – there protection doesn’t spread in the way that it would with a chemical sunscreen.
The whole SPF thing has got a bit confusing, too. Mainly because it sort of tells you eff-all about the protection you’re getting. Back in the (lesser informed) day, it was largely understood that UVB rays cause burning and skin ageing, but everyone sort of turned a blind eye toward UVA rays. This is gradually changing, but SPF still does not indicated any UVA protection – hence why many sunscreen brands now have a separate star rating for the level of UVA protection.
BTW, just to clear up any confusion, UVA rays are the ones that can get into deeper layers of skin and cause things like premature ageing and wrinkles. The scary thing is that only the UVB rays cause actual colour change, so if you use a sunscreen that only protects against UVB exposure, you’re actually likely to do more damage to your skin, since the warning sign of a burn / tan to indicate damage has been removed.
On which note, let’s briefly talk about a tan. Skin cells produce more melanin (aka the pigment that colours your skin) when they are exposed to UV light. So a tan is basically the physical and immediate response to your skin being injured by sun exposure. Which means there is literally no such thing as a “safe tan”, and theories like the aforementioned RGB are so unbelievably stupid, I just can’t even.
And this can happen all year round. UVA rays (the super-damaging ones, remember) can penetrate just about everything – cloud, clothes, glass.. so on a cloudy day sitting inside you can cause damage to your skin. That’s why it’s worth using SPF on exposed areas (like hands and face) every. single. day. I use Murad Invisiblur Protecting Shield because it doubles as a really good mattifying make-up primer, but many good daycreams and foundations also now contain a good level of protection. Charlotte Tilbury Light Wonder (more lightweight, every-day cover) and Magic (denser coverage) are my current favourite.
My father often likes to point out that I come home from holiday way less brown than when I leave. Katie from Secret Spa comes round to my house and sprays me with FakeBake the night before, and then I get a week of damage-free colour before it evenly fades. When I was younger, I used to literally bathe in the sun all day on holiday. When I think of the wasted hours and the added stress of trying valiantly to avoid strap marks, I cringe. Not basking in the sun endlessly has free-ed up so much more time for activities and exploring. And I’m gonna look young for longer. Win win, no?
So, sun worshipers, please: can u not.