It’s always important to wear sunscreen, no questions asked. Over time, exposure to UV rays can cause all sorts of skin problems including fine lines, inflammation, and even skin cancer, among other things. It’s always necessary to load up on SPF any time you know you’ll be out in the sun — like, for instance, when you’re protesting in the streets for long durations of time.
Of course, when protesting on the front lines, beauty is the last thing that should be on anyone’s mind. However, the sunscreen and makeup you wear while doing so could potentially have negative effects on your skin if you’re exposed to chemicals such as pepper spray or tear gas. If you’re planning to apply SPF (or other types of products) before a protest, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, let’s talk about what happens to your skin when it’s exposed to chemical irritants and chemical weapons. Rohini Haar, an emergency medicine physician with expertise in health and human rights issues, explains that tear gas and pepper spray activate the skin’s pain receptors, causing irritation alongside a burning sensation.
“In the short term, these symptoms can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours,” she says. “When there are higher levels or longer exposure, there are cases where people have redness, sores, or a severe chemical burn.”
Those are all effects you obviously do not want to heighten if given the choice, and that’s where your sunscreen and other beauty products come into play. As cosmetic chemist Ginger King points out, tear gas and pepper spray are oil-soluble; according to dermatologists, oil-based products and oil-soluble chemicals could actually be a disastrous combination.
Rather than dissolve chemical irritants and weapons, an oil-heavy sunscreen has the potential to trap them in the skin. “Because [pepper spray] is often dissolved in oils, theoretically, wearing sunscreen or makeup [made] with oils might attract it longer or more vigorously,” board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein explains. And as Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist, adds, that applies to oil-based products in general.
“Oil-based products can be occlusive…they can trap chemicals in the pores,” Gohara explains. In other words: Coming into contact with tear gas or pepper spray is already very painful — wearing an oil-based sunscreen, foundation, or moisturizer might make it more so. Marchbein, King, and Haar all point out that the effects of wearing oil-based sunscreen to protests are not well-studied at this point, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry when seeking protest-friendly sunscreens.
As a general rule of thumb, look for sunscreens that have the terms “oil-free” and/or “noncomedogenic” in the name or on the label when looking for something lightweight. If you’re not sure if something is water-based, look at its ingredient list to see if the word “water (aqua)” is listed at the very top.
On the other hand, King says that the best way to ensure protection for yourself is to seek out a water-resistant formula instead. “If you are wearing a water-resistant sunscreen, it may also potentially shield away other materials in the environment because sunscreens are heavily made up of polymers to form a film to protect our skin,” she says. Some great examples of water-resistant sunscreens include Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Water-Resistant Sunscreen, Shiseido Clear Stick UV Protector WetForce SPF 50+, Sonrei Sea Clearly Sunscreen SPF 50, and CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen.
No matter what sunscreen you do wear, it’s still imperative that you wear protective gear over it. “Something important to consider is that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still very important to continue to wear face masks and even eye protection when outside to try to minimize the spread,” Marchbein reminds. “And these protective items might help in the event of a pepper spray attack.”