Summertime. That time of the year when we enjoy sunny days by the beach, poolside, on in our backyard. It’s also the time when most people use sunscreen to protect their skin against sun radiation. For long, consumers have been buying sunscreen based on the SPF value, the number which tells you how much protection you’re getting from a sunscreen product. In fact, a high SPF sunscreen has been touted to offer more skin protection compared to sunscreens with lower SPF. Logically, this would seem to be true, but scientists are now disapproving this fact.

What High SPF Means

This is how it works. SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’ or ‘sunburn protection factor’, and it indicates how effectively UVB rays are blocked from damaging your skin while outside. Put another way, consider an example of a person who goes out to the sun without sunscreen. If you calculate how long it takes for that person to start getting sunburned, let’s say around 15 minutes, then SPF value explains how many times their skin will be protected against UV exposure.

For instance, a sunscreen with SPF 15 means that it will protect your skin 15 times longer than if you’d gone without it. In other words, it will take you three hours and forty-five minutes to develop sunburn instead of the ordinary 15 minutes.

Manufacturers imply that using sunscreens with higher SPF offers up to 24-hour skin protection. But, as studies are now finding out, SPF value can be misleading and no sunscreen offers 100 percent protection. As the debate on whether high-SPF sunscreens are dangerous or offer more protection rages on, there’s a distinct contrast between theory and reality.

Here’s what you should know.

Negligible Sunburn Protection with High SPF Products

Sunbathers get the wrong impression that using a sunscreen with an SPF of 100 offers them more protection than when using one with SPF 50. However, research shows that the protection might be actually negligible. Admittedly, applying SPF 80 improves on SPF 30, but by only a small margin. Looking at their percentages, SPF 30 offers 97 percent protection, SPF 80 offers 98.25 percent, while SPF 100 blocks 99 percent of UV radiation. When you consider the small difference between all these products, it beats logic to claim that one offers more protection than the other. Yet, this is the selling point of most manufacturers. However, for people with very sensitive skin, a slight margin might make a significant difference

Protection Against UV Radiation

There are three kinds of UV radiation. UVC – is usually filtered by the earth’s atmosphere, UVB – responsible for skin cancer, sunburns, and melanoma, and then there’s UVA – also causes skin cancer and ages your skin. Here in the U.S., a majority of commercial sunscreens successfully block UVB rays. This still leaves us exposed to UVA rays. According to the FDA, avobenzone can effectively block UVA radiation yet very few products contain this compound. For this reason, many commercial manufacturers label their products ‘broad spectrum protection’ which misleads consumers into thinking they are getting more protection.

False Sense of Security

People who use high-SPF sunscreens might feel more protected and end up overexposing themselves in the sun or skip reapplying. It might also deceive them that they don’t need to shade themselves or wear protective gear like sunglasses or a hat. As a result, they are more at risk of getting sunburned than if they had used a sunscreen with a lower SPF. All sunscreen products need to be reapplied (albeit the right amount), every two hours, or after sweating or swimming.

Higher Risks to Health

For a sunscreen to be that effective, it has to contain lots of sun-filtering chemicals. There are still no conclusive studies showing that high SPF sunscreen products are better at protecting against skin damage from the sun. And using them might just be another health risk. Most people also apply far less sunscreen than is recommended by the FDA, and this increases their risk of sunburn.

How to Stay Protected from UV Radiation

So, with all these confusion going on about which sunscreen is safe, how do you protect yourself from sunburns?

  • Always use the correct amount of sunscreen prior to going out in the sun. Regardless of how high your SPF is, it all depends on how well you apply it. Read the labels carefully and follow the instructions provided. Usually, you may be required to apply one teaspoon on your face and a shot glass-full on your body.
  • Always opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with high SPF if you’re going to spend long hours in the sun.
  • Remember to reapply every few hours, especially if you’re having fun in water or sweating due to a physical activity.
  • As much as sunscreen protects your skin, stay away from the midday sun.
  • Use sunscreen in combination with other sunscreen protection gear like sunglasses, clothing or a hat.

All images by Pixabay


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