You’ve heard it a million times from dermatologists, magazines and the fairest among your friends: Wearing a sunscreen every day, with an SPF 15 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection, is your best defense against damage and premature aging. But what you don’t hear so often is that there is likely something major missing from your favorite formula– infrared ray, or IR, protection. About 50% of all sunlight that hits the Earth is in the form of infrared rays and until recently, they’ve been overlooked in skincare. “There’s so much IR out there that this can’t be ignored,” says Dr. Neal Schultz, a dermatologist in NYC.
Let’s break it down: As you know, the sun produces many different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, and “as wavelength increases, the energy of the package of radiation decreases, but the longer the wavelength, the deeper into the skin it goes,” explains Dr. Schultz, which is why we need protection against both shorter UVB rays and longer UVA rays. To put it simply, UVB rays are shorter than UVA and have more energy behind them, but are less damaging to the skin. While UVA rays are longer, they don’t produce as much energy, but are able to deeply penetrate the skin. Because IR make up a broad set of wavelengths, “they’re not all bad, but the ones that are [the longer rays] can cause melasma, blotchiness, uneven skin tone and maybe even cancer,” explains Dr. Doris Day, NYC dermatologist.
The sudden acknowledgement of this new set of rays has been building thanks to beauty parent companies, like Proctor & Gamble, who have been doing independent research into the damaging effects. “It’s been an evolution,” says Dr. Day. “Now, we’re differentiating wave lengths more precisely and expanding the search for what’s really affecting the skin.” It’s important to note that the World Health Organization recognized UVA rays as being harmful only within the past five years. This IR research is taking things another step further in the right direction. As more data comes out, and more independent claims for IR protection are made, the FDA will begin to get involved and “come down hard on them,” says Dr. Schultz, but for now, as Dr. Day puts it, “it’s like the wild, wild West.”
At the current state of knowledge, skincare brands making claims to protect against IR rays are using physical blockers like zinc, iron oxide and titanium, as well as antioxidants (both of which, it’s worth mentioning, have been used in sunscreens for quite some time without being marketed towards IR protection). New anti-aging creams like Philosophy Ultimate Miracle Worker and SkinMedica Total Defense + Repair are specifically formulated with IR protection in mind, and use antioxidants and physical blockers to prevent broad spectrum damage, though Dr. Day and Dr. Schultz say that they prefer mineral physical protectors over antioxidants for IR protection, because they protect against a much broader wavelength. Physical blockers reflect IR “like a bullet proof vest,” according to Dr. Schultz, who believes in following a recipe for damage control until the FDA comes up with stricter guidelines.
Since antioxidants like Vitamin C and Copper help to neutralize IR, he recommends applying an antioxidant serum like SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or BeautyRx Protective Vitamin C Rescue Serum at night so it has a chance to soak into your skin and correct damage and then again in the morning specifically to “catch rays.” Taking an oral Vitamin C like Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate doesn’t hurt either as it aids in collagen production and helps with hyperpigmentation. Then, apply an SPF 15 or higher with UVA and UVB protection plus physical blockers like VMV Hypoallergenics Armada Indoor Outdoor Skin Cover SPF 30 or La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Face, and make sure to reapply every two hours.
“It’s worth looking for products that claim to have IR protection, but because this type of protection still varies from one company to another, pay attention to the ingredients,” says Dr. Day. This is only the beginning of research for IR and hopefully sometime soon (about another five years in all reality), the FDA will place strict regulations on claims to take the confusion out.