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The Higher SPF Myth Finally Explained

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You’re about to hit the beach and show off your new bikini or hard-earned toned gym physique, and you’re standing in the aisle staring at a shelf full of colorful sunscreen bottles all vying for attention. Which to choose from? You check the labels and see that they offer various SPF protection number values. You’re well aware of the sun’s damaging effects on skin: Cancer, pre-mature skin ageing, wrinkles, immune system suppression etc’… Scary stuff indeed. So if SPF- 15 is good, isn’t 100 better? Why not have SPF-500?

 If you automatically think that a higher SPF number is better, you logically should be correct, but as we will see below, the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think.

Let’s try to clear-up exactly what the SPF is, what the differences are between the values and how you can pick the best number for you so you can enjoy the delicious sunshine and not have to worry about the pesky potential harmful sunlight side-effects! It’s time to bust the higher SPF myth!

Understanding SPF

Sunscreen for skin health.

Sunscreen for skin health.

The Sun Protection Factor or SPF is utilized to measure a sunscreen products protection from UVB (Ultra Violet B) rays, the type that cause sunburn and contribute to skin cancer. SPF however does not measure how well a sunscreen will protect from UVA (Ultra Violet A) rays, which are also damaging and harmful. Dermatologists generally recommend using at least an SPF-15 or preferably a SPF-30 sunscreen for everyday use.

  A Sunscreen with SPF-15 protects against 93% of UVB rays, an SPF-30 protects against 97% while an SPF-50 protects against 98% (a relatively minor difference). Very high SPF numbers (such as SPF-100 and higher) are mostly marketing ploys. Most experts believe SPF-30 is enough, provided you don’t skimp, apply the proper amount and remember to re-apply for the duration of your time in the sun ( Check out our review of the truly unique kiss my face sunscreen!)

The jump from SPF-15 to 30 gives you a 4% protective increase while from 30 to 50 there is only a 1% increase. Beyond this minimal increase in protection, sunscreen products with very high SPFs can also encourage individuals to neglect other important protective behaviors, like limiting their sun exposure, seeking shade whenever possible and wearing sun-protective clothing. 

  No sunscreen, no matter how strong, can offer total protection, so especially if the product is not broad-spectrum (which will be explained below), by preventing sunburn, sunscreens with very high SPFs can create a false sense of security, prompting consumers to stay out in the sun longer.  Sun damage (for example, UVA damage) can take place without skin-reddening doses of UV radiation, and even the best sunscreens should be considered just one vital part of a more comprehensive sun protection regimen.

You’re Looking For Broad-Spectrum

  It is very important to keep in mind that SPF ratings only apply to UVB protection. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should look for a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher that provides broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA long wave and UVB short wave light, both of which effect the skin in harmful ways.

The FDA has cracked down on boastful marketing claims and established a standard test for over-the-counter (sold without a prescription) sunscreen products that determine which products are allowed to be labeled as “Broad Spectrum.”

  So you will want to look for a sunscreen labeled Broad-Spectrum and contains ingredients such as homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene or avobenzone mexoryl which are specifically used for UVA protection to give you the full protective package.

For Optimal Sun Radiation Protection

So to recap, the key to proper protection is the amount applied (about an ounce) and ensuring repeated application every two hours or so. Most people tend to slather on either less than the required amount or much more. In the former instance, they are obviously under-protected, and while you might think the latter is preferable, people who over-apply tend to assume they are protected and re-apply less and not seek other radiation protection such as shade and protective clothing.

Apply the proper amount at the right intervals and with the rest of your protective regimen you can enjoy the full benefits of a beautiful sunny day.

Regardless of any hype the sunscreen product you’re using might have, even sunscreen claims of “water-resistance” must have stated lengths of this effect lasting so as not to lull the consumers into a fake sense of security. None are totally waterproof for any real length of time. So as with any SPF number, if you are physically active and sweating or get into the water, you probably need to reapply more often or risk losing the initial benefits of your application.  

Clothing Doesn’t Wear Off

Girl drawing on man's back in sunscreen.

Even hard to reach places!

Remember that proper clothes are more reliable than sunscreen and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to put them on or reapplying. You’ll also be saving the amount of sunscreen needed because you’ll have less skin exposed. Broad brimmed hats are always recommended and darker colored or tightly woven fabrics and some specially treated UV protective clothing provide much more protection than say a plain white cotton T-shirt.  

Kid with sunscreen at beach.

Be sure to pay close attention to sensitive areas.

 – Note – Ladies, please remember that your make-up is not considered enough protection, even if it has some sort of sunscreen in it. The best way to enhance your coverage while wearing make-up would be to utilize a good facial moisturizer with sunscreen in it to better ensure having your skin remain healthy, youthful and wrinkle free.

Conclusion: Do I Pick A Stick, Lotion Or Spray?

No need to panic again at the amount of choices here. When choosing a stick, lotion or spray, it really depends on the preference of the user; these are just different ways to apply the sunscreen and all are effective. I find that with lotion you’re more easily able to control the exact amount applied and ensure an even distribution of the sunscreen across your skin so you can be better protected, and aloe-based sunscreens will not give you any greasy skin feeling.

 Regardless of what kind of sunscreen you do choose, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying it on dry skin 15-30 minutes before you go outside to allow for the product to be absorbed properly into the skin.

The benefits of sunscreen speak for themselves.   I hope these tips have helped clear some of the confusion surrounding sunscreen and SPF numbers, and assisted in choosing the right product for you. Enjoy your fun in the sun and stay healthy!