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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Truth About SPF

There are so many myths and misconceptions about SPF, sunscreen, and how to protect your skin when having fun outside. This will be one of many posts on the subject of the sun and your skin. The bottom line with all of this information is you need to protect your skin when in the sunperiod! When talking with my clients I find the most common misunderstanding is what SPF is and what you can expect from (any) sunscreen. Read on, and check back in for more information on all things sun.

What is SPF? 

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor or as I call it, Sunburn Protection Factor. The SPF number on any given sun product is telling you how much longer you can stay in the sun without burning, compared to not wearing sunscreen at all. For example, if your skin burns after two minutes in the sun without sunscreen, an SPF 15 will allow you to avoid sunburn for 30 minutes (2 minutes x SPF 15). I picked a small number (two minutes) because once you start using larger amounts of time, say 30 minutes to burn without sunscreen, you can see how ridiculous the protection factor gets. For instance, 30 minutes x SPF 15 = 450 minutes or seven 1/2 hours in the sun without burning. I don’t think so! This is by far not a foolproof system and SPF is more of a guideline than anything else. I don’t advise anyone to stay in the sun for very long without reapplying sunscreen. 

Regarding sunscreens and SPFs, I have many clients who come in and say with surprise, “I wore a sunscreen yesterday and still got a tan.” Unless you are wearing what would amount to a suit of armor, if your skin is exposed to the sun, you will get sun. Anytime you’re in direct light, you will probably get some color. I wish I could tell you sunscreen is enough, but it’s not. However, while it may not be total protection, sunscreen is protection nonetheless.

In Australia, they are very sun-conscious. Because the ozone layer in that part of the world has holes in it, the sun’s rays (especially UVB, the burning ray) are a huge concern. I have read that manufacturers of sunscreen products are not allowed to advertise SPFs higher than 30. The reasoning is higher SPFs suggest greater protection, and the government doesn’t want to confuse the consumer into thinking that SPFs higher than 30 are really arming them against extended exposure. This philosophy is not followed in other parts of the world. There is a tendency to think SPF 30+ makes the skin impervious to the harmful effects of the sun.

When the SPF gets higher and higher, so do the concentrations of sunscreen chemicals. The higher the percentage of chemicals in a given product, the greater the chances for allergic reactions and intolerance to the product. Not only can really high SPFs potentially cause skin reactions, they can also make you feel invincible in the sun. The truth is sunscreen needs to be reapplied regardless of the SPF rating. Sunscreen is not a panacea for skin protection. It’s just not as simple as that.

Super high protection (SPF 30 or above) really becomes a matter of diminishing returns. An SPF 30 might give you twice as much protection as an SPF 15, however an SPF 60 does not give you twice as much protection as an SPF 30. In fact, the difference is surprisingly minimal. There are currently some sunscreens that offer SPF 60 and even 100! The FDA is reviewing a proposed regulation that would limit the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labeling to SPF 50+ for those high SPF products.
*UPDATE: SPFs higher than 50 are no longer allowed to be sold in the US.

Remember, how your skin ages is genetic, the care you take of your skin, and lifetime sun exposure. Be smart and wear sunscreen! Your skin will thank you for the added protection.

For alternatives to real sun tanning, see: