Is your SPF actually protecting you?

Posted by in Skin Care, Body

Anywhere we look for summer advice, it somehow always circles back to: Are you using sunscreen?

Granted, it is important. Sunscreen is essential, especially if you’re going on holiday. We’ve all been that annoying friend forcing everyone to lather on three layers of SPF 50 on a holiday as soon as we realised that sunspots are real. And we've all had that friend who asks: Does is actually protect you though?

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What does the SPF number mean?

“The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UvB radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen,” says Steven Q. Wang, chair of The Skin Cancer Foundation Photobiology Committee. "So ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.”

Different types of rays

Sunlight consists of two harmful rays: UVB and UVA. What SPF protects us from is UVB, which is responsible for causing surface burns and reddening. UVA, on the other hand, penetrates deeper, causing lasting cell damage.

“UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays, steadily destroying key substances like collagen that give the skin its firmness and elasticity,” says Paula Begoun, from Paula’s Choice Skincare. “UVA rays are the leading cause of wrinkles and a major contributor to every type of skin cancer.”

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What ingredients should my sunscreen have

This is why you should always be looking for sunscreen with both UVB and UVA protection. A UVA sign will always be circled somewhere on the packaging, as an EU marking standard. This means that the UVA protection is at least one third of the SPF value and meets EU recommendations.

As for the ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are sun protection essentials. In fact, according to the FDA, those are the only approved minerals that have proven sun protection abilities, preventing premature wrinkles and deeper tissue damage.

“[Zinc] is an inert mineral that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin, forming a barrier against the sun's rays. Sunscreens with zinc start protecting you as soon as you put them on,” says New York City-based dermatologist Cybele Fishman. “You may have heard you should look for a "broad-spectrum" product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Any sunscreen that contains the physical blocker zinc oxide or titanium dioxide will have you covered.”

What strength SPF should I buy?

Moreover, when it comes to the level of SPF you should be buying, the EWG recommends anywhere between 15-50 depending on where you live, not how long you will be outside for. This is because SPF 50 will not actually protect you for any longer that SPF 30.

According to the EWG and the Skin Cancer Foundation, SPF 30 blocks nearly 97% of UVB radiation, however SPF 50 blocks about 98% and SPF 100 blocks about 99%, so marginally, the level of SPF does not improve your chances of not burning and certainly does not decrease your chance of premature ageing due to sun damage.

"I'd really recommend sticking with the lower SPF products, applying a liberal coating, and reapplying often," says David Andrews, PhD, EWG senior scientist. ("Often" generally means every two hours, and anytime after swimming, toweling off, or excessive sweating.)

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So next time you’re shopping for your sunscreen, remember to look out for these important factors because, no matter what the SPF number is, there is so much more to sun protection than the SPF number.

If you’re concerned about picking out the right sunscreen for your skin type for the summer or don’t have the time to look, take our quiz for personalised and unbiased recommendations!

Happy burn-free holidays!