EDIT: this post was edited on 31/01/2019 with the most up-to-date research on sunscreens.
Have you heard? The FDA wants to ban sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50+. WTH?
They believe a high SPF creates a false sense of security. You believe it gives you better protection so you don’t apply as much or retouch it as often. It’s kinda true, isn’t it?
Yet new studies show that SPF 100 DOES give you better protection than SPF 50. So, shouldn’t the FDA encourage people to use it – the RIGHT way?
How SPF works
You’ve probably heard that SPF is the amount of time you can stay in the sun without burning. Let’s say, if your skin burns after 20 minutes without sunscreen, it’ll burn after 5 hours with SPF 15.
That’s the theory. The practice? Well, when scientists measure SPF, they use an UV lamp that pumps out a consistent amount of UV light.
That’s not what happens in real life, is it? As the sun rises, you have only a little sunlight. The light peaks at noon and then slowly diminishes again as the day goes by and leaves its place to the night.
In other words, your skin will burn sooner in the early afternoon than in the early morning – even if you wear the same SPF number.
That’s why it’s impossible to tell exactly when you should reapply sunscreen. After 2 hours? 3? 4? It really depends on the SPF you’re wearing AND the amount of UV light you’ve exposed to AND at what times of the day you were exposed to it.
I know, it’s enough to drive a girl crazy. I’ve explained my personal method of figuring out when to reapply sunscreen here.
P.S. While we’re on the subject, SPF refers only to the protection your sunscreen gives you from UVB rays. It doesn’t cover UVA rays too.
How Much UV Radiation Does SPF Block?
So, SPF 30 gives you double the sun protection of SPF 15, right?
Wrong. It sounds logic, but that’s how not SPF works. Here’s how much radiation SPF numbers can really block:
- SPF 15: blocks 93% of UVB rays => still lets 7% through
- SPF 30: blocks 97% of UVB rays => still lets 3% through
- SPF 50: blocks 98% of UVB rays => still lets 2% through
- SPF 100: blocks 99% of UVB rays => still lets 1% through
When you put it like that, it doesn’t seem like it’s worth to switch from SPF 50 to SPF 100 or even from SPF 30 to SPF 50, right? Why go through the trouble of finding a higher SPF sunscreen if it works only 1% better?
Why Higher SPF works Better Than Low SPF
Here’s the deal: the amount of UVB rays a sunscreen still lets through is more important than the amount it blocks. It’s the UV rays that get through that cause all sorts of damage. Here’s the proof:
Researchers asked 199 people to wear SPF 50 on one side of the face and SPF 100 on the other side of the face. They then took part in a number of activities outdoors, just like they would normally do. The aim was to test the SPF in the way real people wear it and use it, not in a sterile lab.
The result? At the end of their activities, 55.3% of the participants were more sunburned on the SPF 50+ side. Only 5% were more sunburned on the SPF 100 side.
And that just measures sunburn. UV rays also give you wrinkles, dark spots and, in the worst case scenario, cancer. Having 1% more of UVB rays hitting your skin doesn’t seem like much, but over 30+ years, every little bit does add up!
I bet now you want to switch to SPF 100 too. But wait, there IS a catch…
Shop High SPF Sunscreens
What’s wrong with high SPF numbers?
Here are the catches:
- False sense of security: you think that SPF 100 is so high, you can get away without reapplying it. This may be true if it’s winter and you’re spending most of your time indoors and away from windows. But most days – especially spring and summer – you still have to reapply SPF regularly.
- Greasier textures: if you want to up that SPF, you need a higher dose of UV filters. But a lot of them have oily, thick textures that feels greasy when you apply them. That alone means you’re tempted to apply less than the recommended amount (1/4 of a teaspoon alone for the face) and reapply it less often.
Is Higher SPF Better Than Lower SPF?
The best sunscreen is the one you’ll use. What’s the point of switching to SPF 100 if you find it so greasy you can’t stand putting on more than the thinnest layer?
By all means, do experiment with different formulas, sunscreens and SPF levels until you find one that works for you. Go with the highest number your skin can tolerate – texture-wise, I mean.
The Bottom Line
Higher SPF can give you better sun protection – if you use the recommended amount and reapply it as often as needed. But if high SPF sunscreens are too greasy for you, it’s ok to go for a lower number – and seek the shade whenever possible.
Do you think that higher SPF means better sun protection, too? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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