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Skin savers

With the summer sun showing no mercy, sunscreens are not just another fashion fad, they’re our best pals.

Sunscreens are barriers — they protect us from both UVA (ultraviolet-A) and UVB (ultraviolet-B) rays which harm our skin and cause the melanin in it to multiply unnaturally. UVA rays are solar rays that penetrate the skin deeply and are the main cause of tanning and wrinkling. UVB rays are stronger and have the potential to cause sunburn and even skin cancer, the most common type being melanoma.

“This radiation is what leads to dark pigmentation, burning and irritation,” says Calcutta-based skin specialist Dr Sheetal Jaiswal. “Everyone should be using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 25. As long as it contains oxybenzone, it will take care of both UVA and UVB rays.” Apart from oxybenzone, two other components to look for are zinc oxide and octinoxate. With either one or all of these essential chemicals, your sunscreen will shield your skin so that it reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it.

What does the SPF rating mean? It’s simple. The higher the SPF, the longer you’re protected. An SPF of 15 simply means that it’ll take your skin 15 times longer to start burning than it would without sunscreen on — if your skin starts feeling the heat in 10 minutes, you’ll be safe for 150 minutes. If your sunscreen has no SPF rating at all, you might as well buy cold cream.

Usually, the safest bet is to stick to the most well known cosmetic brands. But this time the “biggies” are not the best. Some of the most promoted brands don’t even have an SPF of over 30; most stop at 15.

Most shopkeepers insist that any sunscreen with an SPF of 15 is more than enough for anyone in the city. On the contrary, the cruel combination of heat and moisture in the air leaves anyone who spends more than 10 minutes outside feeling like they’ve stepped into an open-air sauna — perfect conditions for sunscreen to drip away.

Two brands, however, seem to have done their homework and are ready to cater to the sporty, sun savvy lot. One is a thick, water-resistant sunscreen that is available in 30 SPF for Rs 300 and 50 SPF for Rs 350. It provides you with reasonable protection and keeps your skin feeling cool and dry.

The other brand has a wide range of products with up to SPF 60 protection. It has sunscreens specifically for men and children over six months old, but a good pick for anyone who spends a lot of time in the sun is its extreme sun block cream (SPF 60) for Rs 345. “This brand is selling the best by far and the one for men is doing very well,” claims Pradeep Poddar, proprietor of Shree Ganesh department store, adding that “the ratio of men buying sunscreen versus women is 60 to 40”.

The SPF may be important but it’s definitely not what counts most. In other words, these brands are not necessarily more effective than the others — they just last longer. In spite of the variety, cosmetic brands still lack essential chemicals.

That’s why people just aren’t satisfied and some end up shelling out a lot more than they need to for their armour. “I use a foreign brand with 20 SPF, which costs me about Rs 3,000 and sometimes I have to get it all the way from Hong Kong,” says Shikha Gupta, a regular gym goer who tried, tested and trashed quite a few others.

Most of the expensive international brands available at Shopper’s Stop and other mall outlets, all costing no less than Rs 2,000, are not selling too well. Why? Simply because they cost so much more and are not necessarily better than our own brands.

The experts are not convinced either. “Cosmetic brands don’t work — you should always buy the medicated kind,” says Dr Jaiswal, her most prescribed sun block being a medicated sunscreen (SPF 26). It’s widely available at any chemist or skin clinic for Rs 220, less than the branded and not as effective ones people are being lured into buying.

So if most people are unhappy with their sunscreen, chances are the only reason they haven’t switched to a better one is because they don’t know they need to be heading to a chemist and not a cosmetics counter.

Good old vanity seems to have done the trick by getting people to troop to a specialist when their favourite beauty brands let them down. “Most people come in because they are conscious of their tan,” says Jaiswal. A tan is definitely not where it ends — UV radiation could cause anything from bad skin eruptions to skin cancer. So a medicated sunscreen seems the only healthy way to go.

“Of course everyone needs a good sunscreen, especially with the kind of humidity here. My sunscreen actually cools me down all day long,” says health trainer Jayanti Banerjee. “I used to use well-known brands to get rid of my tan and my skin got much worse, so I finally went to a skin specialist.” She now uses a medicated product, available at any chemist for Rs 185.

Any Indian with a light complexion is as sensitive to the sun’s rays as Caucasians are. Some burn, some spot. “I had lots of freckles, so after consulting a dermatologist I switched to a medicated one with an SPF 26 and it seems to be working,” smiles consultant psychologist Sheena Misra Ghosh.

All medicated sunscreens available give you total protection and block the sun’s rays so they bounce right off your skin. They are also water resistant and have the recommended SPF rating, making them ideal for the sticky Indian weather and different types of skin.

Along with the right product, there a few other things you need to do to really beat the heat. Put your sunscreen on at least 15 minutes before you leave the house and slap a lot on. Don’t rub it in — there may be a thin visible layer but that’ll disappear in no time once your skin starts absorbing it on its own. Also, remember to wash it off and re-apply it about three times a day if you’re out in the sun. “No sunscreen stays effective for more than two and a half hours,” says Dr Jaiswal.

So there may be no magic potion for sun protection. But with sunscreen, it’s not only safer but also cheaper taking your doctor’s advice over an advertisement on TV and buying the medicated kind. As for whether or not sunscreen is important, it’s either block or bake.

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