Does A Higher SPF Actually Do Anything For Your Skin?
The experts weigh in on sunscreen requirements.
It’s officially the season to bask in a glorious outdoor event, especially after a year of being confined to the four walls of your apartment. But despite the excitement of summer (and hopefully a pending vacation) it’s important not to slack on your sun care protection tactics. It would seem logical then, that using a sunscreen with as high of an SPF as possible yields more protection against sun damage, right? Well, yes and no.
“Sun protective factor, also known as SPF, is a number demonstrating the level of protection from UVB rays per skin type, multiplied by however long it takes you to develop a sunburn, is the sunscreen protecting you,” says Dr. Orit Markowitz, New York City board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin. “So if it takes you five minutes to develop a sunburn and you’re wearing an SPF of 30, then technically it's 150 minutes (five times 30) of protection.”
The common myth with a higher SPF is that you’ll have the ability to stay outside without reapplying throughout the day — which is far from a dermatologist recommendation. And since the sun’s rays are responsible for premature aging, hyperpigmentation, and many skin cancers, it’s vital to have a good understanding of SPF and what degree of protection you should be using. Read on for the 411 on SPF safety.
Higher SPF Brings False Sense of Protection
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone wear sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30, which filters approximately 97% of incoming UVB rays. It’s important to note that sunscreen is only at its optimal protection if applied properly and often — meaning you reapply every 80-90 minutes (more if you’re swimming or sweating), and if you’re using a spray formula, that you’re rubbing it into your skin. In other words, SPF 100 does not allow you to stay in the sun longer than someone with SPF 20, if not reapplied.
Although you may not feel like you’re burning, cumulative sun exposure can lead to various cancers and the breakdown of collagen, which is the direct cause of wrinkles, and it can exacerbate dark spots (especially over time). Dr. Markowitz encourages her patients to invest in SPF 30-70 depending on what activities they have planned for the day (more on that in a bit). But for everyday use, meaning you don’t have a trip to the beach or pool on the calendar, an SPF 30 should be your bare minimum.
What To Look For In A Sunscreen
When selecting a sunscreen, it’s important to understand the difference between the two ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays reach deeper layers of the skin, damaging the collagen and elastin within the skin and ultimately causing wrinkling and photo damage. Whereas UVB rays burn the surface and are the root cause of sunburns.
SPF steps in to help filter out a percentage of UVB rays, according to Dr. Markowitz. “We think of SPF as diminishing returns,” she says, noting that, “Once you’ve filtered out a certain percent, you will lessen the DNA damage.”
Dr. Hope Mitchell, MD, FAAD board certified dermatologist recommends, “choosing a sunscreen with broad spectrum and water resistant (if active - running, swimming, etc.) on the label.” Broad spectrum sunscreen will protect the skin from both sunburns (UVB) and sun exposure (UVA) damage.
How To Properly Apply Sunscreen
The effectiveness of your SPF — regardless of how high — will largely depend on how well you apply it and the type of sunscreen you’re using: chemical or physical. “Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin to absorb ultraviolet rays, and convert them into heat to release them from the skin,” says Dr. Mitchell, “Whereas, mineral sunscreens, also known as physical, are chemical-free, sit on the skin surface, and reflect the rays from the skin.”
According to Dr. Markowitz, “If you are using a thicker, vehicle mineral blocker and you’re not sweating too much or jumping in the water, that sunscreen is going to last you a lot longer and [will] do a really good job at protecting you — [more so] than, say, an aerosol spray of SPF 100 and you’re jumping in the pool.” Aside from the type of SPF, meaning chemical or physical, you’ll also need to take into account the amount of sweat, exposure to the sun, time of year and season, and geographical location. The more you’re sweating, the closer you are to the equator, and whether or not you’re outside during peak sun hours (which, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, is between 10am and 4pm), the more you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen, and the more you could benefit from a higher sun protection factor.
Both derms recommend applying sunscreen every two hours and more frequently if you are in and out of the water. That means, even if you’re wearing makeup and enjoying the outdoors, you will still need to take a minute to add on another layer of sunscreen.
Extra Sun Protection Tips
To get the full protection of your preferred sunscreen formula, it also needs to be evenly distributed on your body, so make sure you’re using enough. A good rule of thumb is to slather it on by ounces. To evenly cover your body from head to toe, the average-sized adult will need one ounce. Therefore, an eight-ounce bottle of sunscreen should last for eight applications.
You’ll also want to apply your sunscreen before you’re exposed to copious amounts of sunshine. “Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed areas at least 30 minutes prior to daily activity,” says Dr. Mitchell. “This is especially important when wearing chemical sunscreen which needs to be absorbed into the skin in order to be effective and combat it from doing DNA damage.”
If you’re worried about irritating your skin (especially with all that reapplication) select a sunscreen without fragrances and preservatives, as these can dry out and irritate the skin. And when in doubt, layer up! “The more you put on, the more you’re filtering out, the less likely you are to leave barriers exposed and frankly the better your skin will look,” Dr. Markowitz shares.
Sunscreen is just one component of the sun protection umbrella of recommendations. You can also invest in hats, sunglasses, and ultraviolet protection factor clothing to further protect the skin from the sun. Unfortunately, skin conditions can occur with or without SPF, but you’re definitely filtering out the high impact of these rays with SPF. Just remember, regardless of how high the SPF you decide to go with, reapply it often and keep your skin safe all summer long.
Looking for your new favorite SPF? Check out five dermatologist-recommended formulas below.
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