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What is SPF Sunscreen?

 SPF Sunscreen

SPF Sunscreen Overview

SPF , or Sun Protection Factor,is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays, the kind of radiation that causes sunburn, damages skin, and can contribute to skin cancer.

  • If your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (a factor of 15 times longer). This is a rough estimate that depends on skin type, intensity of sunlight and amount of sunscreen used. SPF is actually a measure of protection from amount of UVB exposure and it is not meant to help you determine duration of exposure.
     
  • For best protection, experts recommend using a minimum SPF sunscreen of 15, applying the proper amount (2mg/cm2 of skin, or about one ounce for full body coverage), and reapplying every 2 hours.
     
  • Most people under-apply sunscreens, using ¼ to ½ the amount required. Using half the required amount of sunscreen only provides the square root of the SPF. So, a half application of an SPF 30 sunscreen only provides an effective SPF of 5.5!

The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) scale is not linear:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
     
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
     
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

So, one way of looking at this is that SPF 30 sunscreen only gives you 4% more protection than SPF 15 sunscreen.

Or, another way of looking at it is:

  • SPF 15 (93% protection) allows 7 out of 100 photons through
  • SPF 30 (97% protection) allows 3 out of 100 photons through.


So, while you may not be doubling your level of protection, an SPF 30 will block half the radiation that an SPF 15 would let through to your skin.

SPF Sunscreen


It’s complicated, but to keep it simple, most dermatologists recommend using a SPF 15 or SPF 30 sunscreen.

Why not use a really high Sun Protection Factor? 

Sunscreens with really high SPFs, such as SPF 75 or SPF 100, do not offer significantly greater protection than SPF 30 and mislead people into thinking they have more protection than they actually do. Additionally, in order to have broad spectrum protection, the UVA protection should be at least 1/3 of the UVB protection. High SPF sunscreens usually offer far greater UVB than UVA protection, thus offering a false sense of full protection.

Who needs sunscreen?

Everyone. Sunscreen use can help prevent skin cancer by protecting you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of age, gender or race. In fact, it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

When should I use sunscreen?

Every day if you will be outside. The sun emits harmful UV rays year-round. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin.7

Snow, sand, and water increase the need for sunscreen because they reflect the sun’s rays.7

What type of spf sunscreen should I use?

The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again.  Just make sure it offers broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection, has an SPF of 30 or higher and is water-resistant.

The kind of sunscreen you use is a matter of personal choice, and may vary depending on the area of the body to be protected. Available sunscreen options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.   

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the face.
  • Gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp or male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Sprays are sometimes preferred by parents since they are easy to apply to children. Make sure to use enough of these products to thoroughly cover all exposed skin. Do not inhale these products or apply near heat, open flame or while smoking.
  • Current FDA regulations on testing and standardization do not pertain to spray sunscreens. The agency continues to evaluate these products to ensure safety and effectiveness.
  • There also are sunscreens made for specific purposes, such as for sensitive skin and babies.  

Some sunscreen products are also available in combination with moisturizers and cosmetics. While these products are convenient, they also need to be reapplied in order to achieve the best sun protection. 

Sunscreen also may be sold in combination with an insect repellant. The AAD recommends purchasing and using these products separately — sunscreen needs to be applied generously and often, whereas insect repellant should be used sparingly and much less frequently. 

Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it generously to achieve the UV protection indicated on the product label.

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