Protection against harmful UV rays has never been so sophisticated, writes Karen Fong
Once considered a sign of healthy living, bronzed skin is now widely seen as an indication of unwanted things to come: dullness, wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer.
Dr Goh Boon Kee, consultant dermatologist at Skin Physicians in Singapore, notes that sun exposure can cause up to 90 per cent of visible ageing as a result of the degradation of collagen and elastin. "The sun can cause accelerated ageing, resulting in wrinkles, colour changes and loss of elasticity," he says.
In order to prevent skin from going 50 shades darker and the potential health - and beauty - risks that come with it, the skincare industry offers an ever-increasing variety of sun protection products from traditional creams and mineral powders to tinted moisturisers.
The basis of any sunscreen discussion begins with ultraviolet (UV) rays. Divided into UVA, UVB and UVC, each type penetrates the skin differently. UVC is largely blocked by the ozone layer and is negligible in its harm to the skin. UVA, which has a longer wavelength, is the source of 95 per cent of all UV radiation. Besides penetrating surfaces such as glass, UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and generate damage-inducing free radicals. UVB rays are the chief cause of redness in the skin and can directly affect the cells, harming DNA. They are also the primary cause of skin cancer.
Most sunscreens now offer broad-spectrum protection, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. "In the United States, only sunscreens that pass the Food and Drug Administration's [FDA] broad-spectrum test can have that on their label. In other countries, this is usually written as PA+++ for UVA and over SPF 30 for UVB," explains Dr Hui Shiu-kee, a specialist in dermatology and medical director of Cutis Medical Group.
According to measures enacted last year by the FDA, only broad-spectrum sunscreens of sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or higher can claim to "not only protect against sunburn but, if used as directed with other sun protection measures, can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin ageing". The Japan Cosmetic Industry Association also revised its Protection Grade of UVA (PA) system earlier this year to include four grades, with PA++++ offering the highest level of protection.
The two most common types of sunscreen are chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens - including avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789, and oxybenzone - absorb UV rays so that they don't penetrate the basal layer of the skin, but they can aggravate those with sensitive skin. Physical sunscreens form a shield on the skin to reflect and scatter UV rays, but are often blamed for the telltale ghostly look seen on surfers and lifeguards.
Clinique's Even Better City Block Anti-Pollution SPF 40 PA+++ features chemical and physical sunscreens in a film-forming agent to prevent direct contact with the skin. It also contains an added pollution filter to protect against environmental conditions commonly found in Asian cities.
Likewise, Shiseido's latest skincare innovations provide protection against UV damage and pollution without the use of chemical sunscreen agents. Urban Environment UV Protector Extra Mild SPF 30 PA+++ was tested on sensitive Asian skin and children.
Patrick Liew, education manager for Lancôme, believes that Asian consumers in particular expect more from their skincare, including multifunctional coverage and protection. The brand's new UV Expert GN-Shield SPF 50 PA+++ Complete BB Base, with chemical filters Mexoryl SX and XL, combines sweat-resistant UV protection and an anti-pollution complex.
"It's so convenient and easy to apply as the last step in your skincare regime," Liew says. "Sun protection to prevent skin ageing must be done daily, and this product offers 12 hours of protection."
Convenience is also a selling point for La Prairie's Ultra Protection Stick SPF 40 for eyes, lips and nose. "It provides an extra dose of protection to the most sensitive regions of the face and often neglected areas including the earlobe," says communications manager Emmy Yuen. "In addition to UVA and UVB absorbers, it contains porphyra umbilicalis, a unique red algae that lives in shallow water or beaches. [The algae] provide natural protection from damage caused by UVA."
From portability to anti-pollution technology and whitening to hydration, most sunscreens contain benefits that go beyond SPF protection. SkinCeuticals' new Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 - a broad-spectrum physical sunscreen with transparent zinc oxide and titanium dioxide - also functions as a tinted moisturiser.
"While we don't believe all sunscreen products require a tint, it does provide a radiance-enhancing effect," says Yammie Pang, senior training manager at SkinCeuticals Hong Kong. "The formula also contains Z-cote, a transparent zinc oxide, which protects skin from damaging UVA rays. It forms a protective barrier over the skin but is not absorbed by the skin and is less likely to cause irritation."
Over the last few years, there has been a strong trend in sun protection towards natural and organic ingredients, says Chris Birchby, founder of organic sunscreen brand Coola, which offers chemical and physical varieties.
Birchby cites the general trends towards organic food and non-toxic cleaners as leading to greater interest in natural skincare. "Demand has increased for mineral sunscreens that use active ingredient physical blockers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide," he says.
The FDA lists titanium dioxide, a non-allergenic and non-irritating mineral, as one of the most effective active ingredients for sun protection. It's the key ingredient in Coola's Face SPF 20 Unscented Mineral Sunscreen and BareMinerals' SPF 30 Natural Sunscreen, a micronised powder that can be brushed on under or over make-up.
Another popular physical sunscreen, zinc oxide can also absorb UVA light and heal wounds.
It's blended with kaolin and mica in the Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 50 PA+++ from Japanese organic make-up brand MIMC, which is applied with a sponge.
From airy powders and oil-free lotions to moisturising creams for ageing skin, mainstream cosmetics brands continue to expand the variety of sunscreen textures. Kanebo's latest offering, Blanchir Superior White Gel UV Block SPF 50+ PA++++, is a water-based gel that can double as a make-up primer.
Guerlain's UV Protect Spray provides a transparent, moisture-resistant and matte finish.
With so many variations on the market, consumers are spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting a sunscreen, and medical professionals agree this is a good thing.
"In terms of the texture, it really depends on personal preference," says Goh, who advises using an SPF of at least 25.
"The key is compliance with usage. Choose a texture you prefer - that way, at least you will use it regularly."
FROM LEFT: KANEBO BLANCHIR SUPERIOR WHITE GEL UV BLOCK, GUERLAIN BLANC DE PERLE UV PROTECT SPRAY, SHISEIDO URBAN ENVIRONMENT UV PROTECTOR EXTRA MILD.