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With Sunscreen, Opt for Visible Light Protection

 Even during this pandemic, we can participate in outdoor activities that also allow for proper social distancing, like sunbathing, swimming and exercising. But don't forget you still need to use sunscreen to protect your skin, now and for the future.

Sunscreen protects the skin against premature aging, primarily caused by hyperpigmentation, (darkened patches of skin) which is why dermatologists stress sunscreen's importance.  It also plays an important role in reducing the risk of skin cancer years after sun exposure. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), 1 in 5 Americans may develop skin cancer in their lifetime. About 20 Americans die from melanoma, a fatal form of skin cancer, every day. So, while people may automatically apply some broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen before leaving home, knowing they should wear sunscreen and choosing the right sunscreen can be two different things. There are so many choices lining the store shelves, which broadly fall into two categories: tinted and non-tinted sunscreens.

Tinted Versus Transparent Sunscreen

Most non-tinted sunscreens do a good job of blocking ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin, but they don't block visible light. These products are made from chemicals that are so tiny that, once they are applied to the skin, they can reduce the sunscreen's appearance to the point of invisibility. The products absorb the sun's rays like a sponge without leaving a white residue. However, the lotion cannot block visible light rays from touching the skin. This is where the colored or tinted sunscreen makes a difference. 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, colored sunscreens - which can match various skin tones - contain pigmentary titanium dioxide and iron oxide. These ingredients create a mix that adds glow to your skin tone while protecting it from the sun by deflecting visible light.  The AAD advises those with sensitive skin to opt for physical sunscreens, another term for tinted sunscreens, to divert those harmful sun rays.  

What is Visible Light?

We need protection from visible light because it can aggravate skin darkening or hyperpigmentation, which can be an underlying symptom of various skin disorders.  Visible light can be as damaging as ultraviolet rays because of its short high energy wavelengths. While the wavelengths visible to the human eye are between 400 nm to 700 nm, the shorter wavelengths are closer to the UV range of between 200 to 400 nm. High energy visible lights falls within the range of 400 to 500 nm. In other words, these rays are nearer to the higher end of the UV light spectrum but are still visible to us, explains Michelle Wong, PhD, a science educator and content creator in Australia in a recent blog post. For this reason, these rays are called high energy visible (HEV) light and are purple or blue in color. 

A small 2010 study of 20 volunteers assessed the pigmentation caused by UV light and visible light. The researchers found that “pigmentation induced by visible light was darker and more sustained.” Therefore, sunscreens that turn away visible light from the skin are recommended.

So, the next time you head out to sunbathe, remember that visible light is a factor to consider when protecting your skin, especially if you tan easily despite regular sunscreen application. It's important to reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of whether it is the regular or tinted form, the AAD says. 

Benefits of Physical Sunscreen

A review of tinted sunscreens published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2020, looked into their multiple benefits. Different shades are created with varying amounts of iron oxide and titanium dioxide to prevent the worsening of a condition called photodermatoses, which causes skin rashes, although these skin lesions don't usually cause harm in the long run, the researchers said. The review also mentioned that tinted sunscreen could help those with hyperpigmentation-based skin disorders such as melasma. The condition can cause brown patches to appear across the expanse of the face or on a few parts of the face. 

Another study led by the Department of Dermatology, Medcin Clinical Research Center, Osasco, Brazil published in 2019 analyzed 33 sunscreen products available in that country; 17 contained pigments and 16 had none. They found that products created with pigments showed a higher protection value against visible light when compared to products without iron dioxide. 

Once you figure out what suits your skin, be sure to apply sunscreen before going outdoors, even if it’s for a walk around the block. Ensure you rub one ounce or the equivalent of a shot glass of sunscreen to any body part exposed to the sun. Do this about 15 minutes prior to going outside to let the skin absorb the lotion, the AAD recommends.

Sunscreen Henry Fraser wears zinc oxide on his lips as he sits in the shade during a visit to the beach June 20, 2006 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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