If you’re like us, you understand that it’s bad enough knowing that the sun’s ultraviolet rays are aging us and that when we were kids, sunscreen usage was barely adequate. (Oh, okay - basically non-existent!) But now there is talk of a whole other part of the light spectrum — infrared — as an even deadlier culprit.
Of course, a few savvy skin care companies saw this as a way to put a little money in their pockets and pulled out the marketing big guns in an attempt to “educate” the general public. Word got out and as you can imagine - our phones and email inboxes at Theraderm blew up with customers and practitioners asking if our Platinum Protection Facial Sunscreen protected against infrared light. Luckily, at just about this same time, there was new research that suggested that infrared wasn’t as harmful as we were led to believe. (Curses to those marketing companies!)
So what was behind all of this mayhem? The initial alarm was fuelled by just how much infrared there is. For example, infrared accounts for 50 percent of a person’s light exposure, compared to just 7 percent from UVA and UVB. But before you retreat underground, let’s understand what infrared is. Part of the electromagnetic spectrum, infrared light is emitted along with other frequencies including gamma rays, x-rays, UV rays, visible light, microwaves and radio waves.
Infrared has two components. IRB, or short wavelength infrared, has been said to penetrate just at the epidermal layer. IRA, or near infrared, sounds a lot scarier as it is thought to go deep down to where new skin cells are formed and nutrients are delivered to the skin. What we were told was that this deep penetration messes with collagen equilibrium and attacks the mitochondria in our cells, leading to premature skin aging.
But does it? If there was really a threat from 50 percent of our light exposure, wouldn’t the consequences be more….dramatic? Isn’t it more likely that we would have evolved some kind of resistance? As Dr. Beckman researched, he found that infrared might, in fact, even be beneficial rather than harmful for our skin. Yay, science!
In a 2016 study evaluating the need for IR protection in sunscreens, researchers looked at the IRA exposure of steel and glass workers who work in extreme heat and compared this to typical sun exposure. They determined that the IRA levels were similar and found no notable skin damage in the workers. They concluded that infrared protection was not needed in sunscreens.
One reason for the discrepancies in these kinds of findings is that studies which found IR to be damaging used artificial NIR light sources that were not representative of the solar irradiance, such as one by Pienza et al in 2014. A very thorough article in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology looks at studies that have been conducted and show that the artificial heat-inducing devices used did indeed cause damage to collagen, but were of much higher intensities than would be received from normal exposure to the sun. Normal solar irradiance is measured at approximately 100 mW/cm, and one Korean study that concluded IR caused wrinkles used levels of 1200 mW/cm for up to 15 weeks. What this is saying in a nutshell is that basically, damage is not possible with the amount of exposure we get on a daily basis.
And then there is research showing that IR is beneficial. For example, therapies using IR can result in the proliferation of specific cells, gene expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines and suppression of the synthesis of pro-inflammatory mediators. And to top it all off, there seems to be evidence that exposure to infrared actually helps our bodies protect against the deleterious effects of UV light. For us, all this suggests that infrared fear-mongering has just been keeping people in the dark in order to sell products.
Dr. Beckman is a firm believer that when it comes to active ingredients, less is more. Particularly when it comes to new, trendy sunscreens created in an effort to set products apart in a very competitive market. He’ll stick to using the tried and true mineral blockers rather than new (not as tested or proven) ingredients while giving his customers broad-spectrum UVB/UVA protection with an SPF 43. You can’t ask for any more than that!