Shield your Skin against the Sun -The Importance of Sunscreen Use

While we unabashedly indulge ourselves in the wide array of beauty products that are available across retail establishments all over, there is one product that actually goes more than ‘skin deep,’ but is sadly the most neglected component of our daily beauty/skincare regimen – the Sunscreen.

Our television commercials these days, talk a lot about sunscreen lotions and creams, their ‘SPF’ factor (The ‘Sun Protection Factor’), and how they protect us against the UV rays of the sun. Most usually, a fair-skinned lissome young woman is sashaying in the hot sun with her ‘I don’t care’ expression, while a lot of dark-skinned ladies stare at her in envy under umbrellas and wide-brimmed hats. A lot is to be desired out of these couched references to beauty stereotypes (we will come to it later in the article), but all these advertisements merely skim the surface and miss out on the most relevant parts – the dangers of sun exposure, and the actual benefits of using a good sunscreen or sunblock. This article will help you understand the crucial role played by the Sunscreen lotion/cream in protecting your skin from incredible damage.

Tanning – Is it harmful?

Tanning, firstly, is not a disease, nor should it be considered ‘undesirable,’ unless it is frequent and repeated. Tanning is caused by the UVA radiation when it hits the epidermis (the top layer of the skin). Tanning is basically the increased production of Melanin in the skin cells, which is a dark brown naturally occurring pigment. The presence of Melanin is extremely useful in protecting us against skin cancer. The reason for this is that Melanin acts as a protective layer around the nucleus of skin cells, thereby guarding the DNA present inside. As you may be aware, any cancer is the direct consequence of mutation (DNA level changes) at the nuclear level. By protecting the nucleus and the DNA, Melanin reduces the chances of skin cancer.

What does this mean in general terms? It means that the more the Melanin in our skin, the less our susceptibility to skin cancer. In simpler terms, dark-skinned people have better natural protection against this terrible skin disease! Hence, people living in tropical places like India definitely have an upper hand in the fight against skin cancer. Of course, this does not imply that you go and sit everyday under the hot sun to get a tan!

So, what happens to when there is less Melanin?

Firstly, the reduced presence of Melanin makes you prone to sunburn (Burning is the actual damage to the skin cells caused by heat, while tanning is just increased pigmentation).

Secondly, where the skin is exposed to the harmful UV radiation, the absence (or reduced presence) of Melanin means a loss of the largest defense mechanism.

Hence, fair-skinned people have to be extra careful of unwanted or prolonged sun exposure. In fact, in countries like the US, skin check up is a routine check-up, much like an eye check up, or a dental check up, or a liver check up in India.

It is easy to detect early signs of cancerous skin tumors. Look at the moles on the body, especially new ones, and apply the ABCD rule:

  • A: Asymmetry of surface
  • B: Border – suspicious ones tend to have irregular border
  • C: Colour – especially uneven colour or unexpected coloration
  • D: Diameter – rapidly increasing moles

If you notice any of these abnormalities in your mole, consult your dermatologist.


What are the common sun-related skin ailments?

The most common skin issues caused by sun-exposure are:

  1. Sunburn type response – redness, swelling, heat sensation. Certain medicines make people prone to sunburn, so they may …
  2. Rash type response – usually photoallergies with itching. Example – Polymorphous Light Eruption (PLE), which is characterized by a red rash (tiny bumps, patchy skin).
  3. Urticarial response – solar urticaria (hives)
  4. Chronic photosensitivity – repeated exposure over time causes photoageing – which brings about wrinkles, pores, and sagging of skin.
  5. Other conditions aggravated by sun – Melasma (‘butterfly patch’ or butterfly shaped discoloration in the central area of the face), Milia (small white cysts on nose and cheeks especially), DPN (Dermatosis Papulosa Nigra), Solar lentigo (black dots on face), and Actinic Keratosis.

So, how can we protect our skin against these skin ailments?

Here is where the Sunscreen becomes our best friend. The Sunscreen protects the skin cells from all these conditions, and is the first on the list in any anti-ageing prescription. The Sunscreen is also known as a Sunblock, or a Suntan lotion. It may be available in the form of a thick cream, or a matte or gel lotion. Some are water resistant, allowing use during swimming or for intensive physical activity in the sun.

All sunscreen products contain a certain level of ‘SPF’ or Sun Protection Factor, which is basically a representation of how well the sunscreen protects your skin. For a tropical place like India, an SPF value of 30 is sufficient to guard the skin against over exposure to the sun.

Myth – the Skin Whitening Cream

This is the worst and most deplorable myth propagated by supposed ‘beauty’ pundits in recent times, so much so, that there has been a rise of an entire mindset against the ‘Fair & Lovely’ concept in beauty. Clinically, too, there is no such thing as a ‘skin whitening cream.’ No cream can make you fairer from within, unless you’re doing something disastrous to yourself in the process. However, here is a myth-busting dose of reality for you – the Sunscreen, with persistent usage, can actually cause skin brightening, and delay the onset of ageing (photoageing) by reducing the appearance of wrinkles, skin sagging, and open pores. No better reason to adopt the sunscreen into your daily skin care routine.

Sunscreen use – Things to remember

  1. Sunscreen should be definitely used by those above the age of 20, irrespective of whether they actually step into the sun or not. This is because the radiation from the sun can affect our skin even if we are not standing in direct sunlight.
  2. The sunscreen should be used at least twice a day for it to have maximum beneficial effect. It can be used more frequently, especially if there is sun exposure in the period from 8 am to 5 pm, in which case it may be applied thrice in this pattern: 8 am – 11 am – 2 pm.
  3. The action of a sunscreen (single use) begins only about 30 minutes from the time of application. Hence, it is advised that you apply your sunblock about 30 minutes prior to stepping outside your home. In addition, the action of the sunscreen lasts for about 3 hours, after which, it needs to be reapplied to continue skin protection.
  4. Sunscreens are of two types – physical and chemical. The physical sunscreen is the type that contains Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide. These are recognized by the white sheen/residue that they tend to leave on the face. Chemical sunscreens contain some active organic chemical compounds that filter the UV rays or even absorb them. A good sunscreen often contains a combination of physical as well as chemical elements.
  5. Sunscreen should be used on all exposed areas – face, arms, legs, back, etc.
  6. The use should be increased when you are on holidays (more travel), or when in or near water (pool, beach etc.) For using in the water, choose a good water resistant sunscreen.


Key Takeaways

Whether your skin tone is fair, or dark, or wheatish, or olive, the sunscreen is your friend for life. In Dermatology, there is a common saying, ‘Once irritated, the skin never forgets.’ That is to say, once your skin barrier is breached, the scars may heal, but it never really gets cured. That is why sunscreen use is even more crucial, especially as age progresses. A person who has used sunscreen everyday of his life, say, post the age of 20, will surely have noticeably healthier and younger skin when he/she is 40 years old. Hence, the sunscreen is the real anti-ageing secret, a veritable fount of youth. Like I say to all my patients, adopt the sunscreen into your life much like you have adopted the toothpaste for your dental health and hygiene. And replenish and protect your skin from the ravages of excess sun exposure.


Article Credits – Dr. Shailly Gupta (Dermatology, Guest contributor)