Do You Need to Wear Sunscreen Indoors?

For years you’ve heeded the call to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed skin every time you head out the door. In the summertime, this healthy skin habit is even more important, since typically you’re spending more time in the sun. Lately, you may be spending less time outside and more indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you still need to prioritize SPF? In short, probably.

“People are very focused on wearing sunscreen at the beach to avoid a sunburn, which is caused by shorter wavelength UVB rays. Don’t forget about UVA rays, which contribute to aging and skin cancer and can reach you while you’re indoors,” says Elizabeth Hale, MD, the senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation and a clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. “UVA has a longer wavelength than UVB. Not only can it penetrate deeper into skin to break down collagen and elastin, leading to wrinkles, but it also gets through clouds and windows,” she says.

Some dermatologists, including Loretta Ciraldo, MD, a Miami-based board- certified dermatologist and the founder of the Dr. Loretta line of skin care, say that you don’t necessarily need sunscreen indoors, but you should slather it on in the a.m. anyway. “I advocate using an SPF product every morning, because during the course of your daily activities, you may be getting what’s called ‘inadvertent sun exposure,’ either when driving (through window glass) or from a short errand outdoors that turns into more exposure than planned, like if you run to the mailbox and stop to talk to a neighbor,” she says.

While you hear about UV rays, there’s another type of light to know about. Visible light is the light you can see, and includes natural sources (the sun’s rays) and artificial ones (the blue glow from electronics). You may also see this referred to as HEV, or high energy visible light. This type of light does not cause a sunburn, but it may lead to other damage.

How to Keep Your Skin Safe When Indoors

Even if you’re not going outside, Hale still recommends applying a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum" (this signals that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays) on exposed areas, like your face, neck, back of hands, and décolletage. For even better protection, smooth on an antioxidant serum before the sunscreen. “Antioxidants can help block damage from free radicals,” says Dr. Hale. These free radicals are generated from pollution, smoke, sun — and visible light. To find a product that fits the bill, look for a product that includes “antioxidant serum” on the label or in its name or lists antioxidant ingredients like vitamin C.

Visible light particularly exacerbates pigmentation problems like melasma, says Hale. Melasma is a skin problem in which brown patches cover the face, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Dermatologists believe that hormone changes cause it to appear, which is why melasma is a common problem during pregnancy, a time when women go through hormonal shifts. When you’re indoors, consider wearing a tinted facial sunscreen. Not only do these tend to feel lighter in weight (more of the texture of a moisturizer), but they also contain a pigment called iron oxide. “This ingredient can specifically block visible light and decrease the risk of melasma,” says Hale.

The Best Sunscreen Products to Use Inside, According to a Dermatologist

No matter how much you plan to be outside today, “taking care of your skin starts with sunscreen,” says Hale. Here are five products that are perfect for protecting you when you’re going to be (mainly) indoors.

EltaMD UV Elements Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 44, $35.50,

This glides on, and softens and hydrates skin with hyaluronic acid. It has an SPF of 44 to protect against UV rays, and zinc oxide to guard against visible light. It’s also oil-free, so it won’t cause breakouts. This is one you’ll enjoy applying every morning, because it makes skin glow.

Colorescience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF 30, $65,

Hale likes this product because of its brush application, which makes it easy to carry with you in your bag and reapply midday. It comes in five shades, and the powder texture helps mattify skin for upcoming Zoom calls, she says.

Tarte Cosmetics Tarteguard 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen, $28,

With SPF 30, this is a translucent powder sunscreen that can be applied on the go. It’s also more affordable than other similar products, but still contains the physical blockers titanium dioxide and iron oxide to shield you from the sun, and the iron oxide prevents visible light from penetrating your skin. Dust this in your hairline or scalp, two places where it can be tough (and goopy) to apply a lotion.

Heliocare Daily Use Antioxidant Formula Capsules, $29.99,

Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant SPF 40, $50,

This is Loretta’s product, and it fights skin damage on multiple fronts: She designed it to defend against pollution, UVA, UVB, and HEV. Zinc oxide addresses UV rays, while Indian ginseng extract protects skin cells from visible light.

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