You know that your skin needs to be protected from the sun, especially when you live with vitiligo. And you know that wearing sunscreen is an effective way to do just that. But what about shopping for and choosing a sunscreen? With so many different formulations and ingredients, choosing the right sunscreen can be confusing and occasionally, stressful. But it doesn’t have to be.
While there is no single best sunscreen for vitiligo, there are some pertinent must-knows when shopping for the right protection for your skin. Here’s your go-to guide for shopping for and using sunscreen to keep your skin sun-safe.
Opt for sunblock over sunscreen (yes, there’s a difference)
You may have thought that the terms “sunscreen” and “sunblock” were interchangeable. Yet unlike their usage in everyday conversations, there is actually a fundamental difference in how they protect you from the sun.
Sunblocks, or mineral sunscreens, are also called physical blockers because they work like a shield to deflect the sun’s rays. These products include ingredients that contain an “oxide” in their names: zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Sunscreens, on the other hand, are considered chemical blockers because they absorb harmful ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and convert it into small amounts of heat. Chemical blockers are all other agents except for the “oxides.” For simplicity’s sake, we will collectively refer to chemical and physical blockers as “sunscreens.”
While both types of sunscreen are effective in protecting your skin from the sun, if given the choice between chemical or physical blockers, physical blockers may have the upper hand. For one, they are less likely than chemical blockers to induce allergic reactions and irritate sensitive skin. The “oxides” are also the only ingredients that are FDA-labeled as generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE). And possibly a pro from a cost-perspective, they are considered to have a longer shelf life. Perhaps the main downside of physical blockers is that they are traditionally known to leave white casts on the skin, making it an unpopular choice among those with darker skin tones or if photographs need to be taken that day. However, physical blockers have come a long way and many formulations no longer do this.
The bottom line: either type of sunscreen is better than none. But, if you had to choose one type, physical blockers may be your best bet.
Use SPF 30 or higher
Possibly the most common label you might have seen on sunscreen bottles is “SPF.” SPF stands for sunburn protection factor and refers to the degree of UV protection that a sunscreen offers. For example, SPF 15 will block around 93% of the sun’s rays while SPF 30 will block up to 97%. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection. For reference, melanin, our body’s natural sunscreen, is proposed to have an SPF of only 1.5-2.0.
Experts advise using sun protection with an SPF of at least 30. However, it is important to note that the SPF of your sunscreen gradually decreases while you are out in the sun and needs to be reapplied every two hours to maintain the same degree of protection.
Use water-resistant products
There are many ways to customize your sunscreen use to best fit your skincare regimen. There are formulations for oily, dry, combination, acne-prone, and sensitive skin as well as types that can be easily blended under make-up. Of particular importance for everyone is the label “water-resistant.
A water-resistant sunscreen claims to retain its specified SPF for a certain amount of time while in the water or while sweating. For example, a water rating of 80 means that the sunscreen can retain its SPF for 80 minutes when wet.
An important distinction is that it is not water-proof. In fact, water-proof sunscreens do not exist. Therefore, while a water-resistant sunscreen can still protect you from the sun even if you’re sweating or swimming, it still needs to be reapplied after it’s specified time limit.
Choose “broad spectrum”
This is one label you’ll want to make sure is in your basket at check-out. Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both types of UV light – UVB and UVA. Here’s why this matters.
The two main types of UV light that reach the earth’s surface, UVB and UVA, both contribute to cancer. Of the two types, UVB is the main perpetrator of sun-induced skin cancer because it has a higher energy wavelength. However, there are 500 times more UVA than UVB rays in the air, making protection against both UVB and UVA crucial.
Additionally, although UVA is not as potent of an energy source in eliciting cancer, it can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. As a result, it can contribute to “photoaging,” which results in damage to the strength and elasticity of the skin (think wrinkles).
Apply sunscreen everywhere – even under clothing
After picking out a sunscreen that is at least SPF 30, water-resistant and broad-spectrum, you are now ready to check-out and take your new sunscreen home. When wearing your sunscreen, be sure to apply it to all areas of your skin and remember to get the tips of your ears, back of your neck, chest, and top of your foot if you’re wearing open toed shoes. (Hint: Don’t forget to give your lips some love too with a lip balm containing SPF.)
Another critical note: Not all clothing protects your skin from the sun. Just like how sunscreen has an SPF rating, clothing contains a UPF – ultraviolet protection factor – rating that indicates the material’s ability to protect against UV rays. Unfortunately, most clothing today is not made with high UPF ratings. Therefore, it is still important to wear sunscreen under clothes and especially when only wearing thin layers.
Use sunscreen indoors and on cloudy days
A common misconception about sunscreen use is that we don’t need to wear it on cloudy days. Unlike visible light, UV light is not so easily detected with our eyes. UV rays can still penetrate through clouds and water to reach your skin – and the same goes for windows when you’re indoors. It is important to make sunscreen a normal part of your daily routine because of this.
Be cognizant of reasons you might need to take extra precautions
It is also worth noting that there are unique circumstances where greater sun protection is needed. You might have a family history of skin cancer or be taking certain medications that have toxic or allergic reactions with the sun. In both these instances, strict and diligent sunscreen use and other forms of sun protection is crucial.
If you have additional questions about sun protection in vitiligo, speak with your dermatologist to discuss your unique health care goals.
How are you going to live your best sun-filled life?
Brenner, M., & Hearing, V. J. (2008). The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochemistry and photobiology, 84(3), 539-549.
Erika Malana is a medical student from Toronto, Canada. She is interested in how everyday agents and stressors, such as pollution and UV light, can contribute to skin cancer and hopes to empower future patients through education on preventative health habits. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with friends and family and binging TV shows.