Do you know your sunscreen?

Did you know that there are tiny bits in our skin cells that are called melanocytes and are responsible for the colour of our skin (hair and eyes too)? What is their connection to pigmentation? To understand it, Kavita Khosa says we should be looking at a broad spectrum sunscreen that ensures protection from both UVA and UVB rays and is effective for deeper skin tissues.

She says, when our skin is exposed to Ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun, it can trigger a response in them to produce excess melanin — the protective, dark pigment made by melanocytes. This melanin then surfaces to the top of our skin presenting as pigmentation, discolouration, sun spots and melasma.

But no regime is effective till we realise how best to shield ourselves from the sun and protect our skin from excessive exposure to UVA and UVB rays. A sunscreen or sunblock does two things: it absorbs or it reflects the sun’s UV radiation, protecting the skin against sunburns and skin ageing. When used regularly, a sunscreen will slow or temporarily prevent the development of photo-ageing: wrinkles, moles, flaccid and sagging skin. Do you remember that famous picture of a US truck driver with severe sun-induced wrinkling and pigmentation on one side of his face? It had gone viral some time back and is a stark visual reminder of the damage sun rays can cause to skin.

Understanding sunlight — UVA and UVB

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So, how can this very source of energy, this giant ball of fire, so vital for all life forms on our planet be bad for our skin? Sunlight is visible, infrared, ultraviolet (UV) light given off by the sun. It is, after all, electromagnetic radiation. Let’s talk about two types of UV rays that affect our skin and health: Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB).

Think A for ageing: UVA is known to cause significant damage to skin by the formation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). Excess exposure can cause pigmentation, sun spots, wrinkling, loss of elasticity, sagging and even skin cancer.

Think B for burns: UVB rays damage our DNA and cause sunburns but are also required for vitamin D synthesis in the skin and the fur of mammals. How fascinating is that?

Let’s learn how to read sunscreen labels

Asian brands, mainly Japanese ones, use the PA or Protection Grade of UVA system to measure the UVA protection that a sunscreen provides.

UVB Sun Protection Factor (SPF): The SPF measures the level of protection from UVB rays. So, an SPF 15 protection means that 1/15 of the UVB rays will reach your skin. It is not an ideal measure because it is the UVA, not UVB rays that cause the skin damage. Also, sunscreens with higher SPF like 50 do not last or remain effective on the skin any longer than lower SPF and must be continually reapplied every two hours as a fairly thick and even coat to prevent sunburns.

Broad spectrum sunscreen: It means protection from both UVA and UVB rays on the skin’s surface, as well as deeper skin tissues. Always choose a broad spectrum. Look for the UVA sign in a circle.

Get physical

Choose physical blockers, also known as mineral sunscreen. That means they do not contain any of the harmful chemical blockers, many of which have been banned in many countries but still show up in brands in India. Go beyond and do your research to ensure your sunscreen contains both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. UVA protection is better achieved with zinc oxide.

Rule of thumb is UVB causes sunburns. UVA causes irreversible skin ageing. Most of its visible damage only shows up years after exposure. So please choose a broad spectrum sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for sun protection.

Opt for ayurveda

Ayurveda helps you personalise your approach to skin and pigmentation. Doshas are attributes of nature in Ayurveda — like your own unique fingerprints — They determine your physical and mental constitution. There are three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. Each person usually has a combination of all the three — A dominant dosha and a combination of the other two doshas. ‘Sama’ dosha or all doshas in balance is ideal but rare. Knowing your doshas can help you navigate issues like pimples, coughs and colds, serious disorders, pain and disease management; and help keep your balance through seasonal changes as you get on with the various stages of your life.

Let us delve deeper into the doshas from a skin and hair perspective. Skin type means the skin you are born with. As you grow older, as your diet and lifestyle changes, your skin ‘condition’ also evolves and changes. According to Ayurveda, you are born with a specific dosha combination that is called prakruti. As you grow older, your dosha combination can change. This is called vikruti. Lifestyle, location, external causes can contribute to the change in your doshas.

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Once you’ve figured out your dosha, it will act as your forever guiding light — helping you understand your skin and its needs so you can create a skincare ritual for the summer. If you are a pitta skin type for example, your skin is heat-sensitive, easily inflamed, prone to acne and congestion. Cooling masks with milk and liquorice paste applied daily will really show superb results in addressing pigmentation and keeping it at bay.

When it comes to summer skin care, our grandma’s recipes (nuskhe) can truly save the day. Many are recipes from classic ayurvedic texts, effectively targeting excess melanin with herbs like liquorice, madder root, saffron, multani mitti, lentils and other kitchen ingredients. We can make sunscreen from saffron, use hemp oil to heal acne. Madder root helps arrest hyperpigmentation.

Also, final words of wisdom — Walk in the shade, cover up. Long wraps, large sun hats, sunglasses, turbans look cool and keep you cool.

(Khosa is author of Beauty Unbottled, Penguin Radom House)

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