Is it science or scam? The SPF ranking system is confusing at best and misleading at worst, which leaves many wondering if the higher SPF products are even worth the investment. Recent studies and secondary considerations may reveal the answer.
What Is SPF, Anyway?
SPF stands for Sun Protective Factor. The scale that provides the numbers, however, isn’t what you’d expect. SPF 50 does not protect against 100% of UV rays, and SPF 100 does not protect against 100% of UV rays. In fact SPF 30 protects against up to 97% of UV rays that hit your skin. Going up to 100 SPF only adds one or two percent of total UV protection. Nothing is 100% effective, and you get much more protection with lower numbers than the numbering system suggests.
Rather than just looking at the SPF number on a bottle of sunscreen, look at the ingredient list. Many active ingredients break down as they absorb UV rays, so they are only useful for a specific amount of time. That’s why you’re supposed to refresh your sunscreen every two hours or less. Titanium dioxide breaks down slowly, but mineral zinc oxide doesn’t significantly weaken during wearing. There are other chemical actives, of course, that break down fairly quickly. Most sunscreens provide ingredient lists online. It pays to look up active ingredients in advance to make sure they can do what you need them to.
While you’re looking at the active ingredients list, look for items that provide secondary protection. Some actively fight inflammation or protect your skin from things like windburn. You may not need to worry about windburn on a quiet beach, but you definitely will if you go skiing. These play into study results, like the one the American Academy of Dermatology recently released. According to the study, SPF 100 products provide better protection than SPF 50, but issues like windburn were not taken into consideration.
A Quick Reminder
Whatever SPF you choose, you need to wear sunscreen every day. This isn’t just for sports and vacations. The sun is attacking your skin every time you step outside, so make sure you’re doing everything you can to protect it. Wear hats during sunny days, and try to protect skin with clothing whenever possible. If you’re having fun in the sun, reapply about a shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to all exposed skin at least once every two hours. Swimming, sweating, and even rubbing a towel over your skin removes sunscreen, so make sure to reapply right away.
There is still a lot of debate over whether the higher SPF numbers are simply a marketing ploy or if they are genuinely better at blocking the sun. Recent studies suggest higher SPF products are worth the cost. This may be in part to additional ingredients that handle other harmful variables, like windburn. Regardless of the product you choose, however, make sure you wear if every day.
No matter how high the SPF number on the bottle is, if the sunscreen doesn’t actually make it onto your skin, it won’t do any good. Regular sunscreen application is critical for skincare. Make sure you know what’s the in the bottle, and go out every day protected.