A guide to sunscreen SPF ratings


It’s great to have fun in the sun, but it’s important to make SPF your BFF to keep yourself safe for the short and long-term!

The importance of sun protection is never diminished, and whether you like to spend your time indoors in the air conditioning or outside getting your sweat on, you have to think about what kind of sun protection you need – particularly when it comes to sunscreen.

Why do I need to wear sunscreen?

Sunscreen is an easy way to limit the affects that UV radiation has on your skin, preventing both short-term damage, like sunburn, and minimising long-term damage, including skin cancer and premature aging. However, it’s not easy to navigate through the many different kinds of sunscreens and the different SPF ratings. But that’s all about to be cleared up, so you can plan your beach trips free from worry!

Explaining SPF

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which measures the amount of protection the sunscreen provides from the two types of UV rays – UVA and UVB. The latter are the ultra-violet rays which contribute to sunburn, and in the long term, skin-cancer. UVA rays are the main contributors to giving you a tan, developing wrinkles, and also weaken your skin’s lower layers, making you more vulnerable to – you guessed it – skin cancer.

To ensure protection for both kinds of rays, look for sunscreens that have both UVA and UVB protection, or say the words “Broad Spectrum”. That’s easy enough, but it’s only useful if you remember to be vigilant in your daily protection. That means, if you’re exposed to sunlight in any way – even if you’re inside – dermatologists and doctors agree that you should be wearing some form of sunscreen. So, by breaking down and explaining the different kinds of SPF, you can decide which rating you need to keep your skin safe and happy – without relinquishing your Vitamin D.

SPF ratings

The lowest form of SPF you’ll tend to find in sunscreen is SPF 15 – the minimum level you should be willing to rely on. SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93% of the UVB rays that try to bounce off your skin, so even using the smallest level of protection makes a huge difference.

The next level up tends to be SPF 30, which blocks 97% of UVB rays, which may come as a surprise and seem a little pointless – after all, you’d expect twice the amount of protection than that of a sunscreen with an SPF 15 rating. However, with SPF 30, you’re blocking half of the radiation that a sunscreen with SPF 15 would let through to the skin.

SPF 50 is the highest level of sunscreen that’s legally available in Australia, for the reason that it only provides an extra 1% of protection compared to SPF 30. Anything rated higher than SPF 50 provides less and less additional coverage, which could be considered misleading. Consumer advocacy group Choice recently examined the SPF 50 claims made by some sunscreen brands, with some surprisingly results.

Which SPF rating do I need?

A few things should be taken into consideration when figuring out what level of sunscreen you should wear, and when. Firstly, consider your skin type – if you have fairer skin that’s more prone to burning, you may want to consider wearing a higher level of sunscreen, or at least reapplying more frequently. Likewise, if you have a darker or more olive-toned complexion, you probably don’t need SPF 50 for doing the daily groceries.

For the average Australian, SPF 15 will be sufficient for normal daily activities in which you experience minimal sunlight, and if you work indoors. However, there’s no harm in going for an SPF 30 on a daily basis to just add that little extra protection.

If you spend more time outdoors, whether that’s working or exercising, consider a sunscreen marketed for sport. These products tend to be water resistant, have a high level of protection, and last a little better for that afternoon swim. If you believe you fall into this category, an SPF of 30 would be a safe bet, if not SPF 50.

Top tips

All of this is subjective to whether or not you apply your sunscreen correctly in the first place. The general rule of thumb is to use one quarter of a teaspoon of sunscreen for your face, and another quarter teaspoon for your neck. For body parts, you want about a teaspoon for each of your limbs – just remember to apply liberally. If you don’t use enough sunscreen, you’re not giving your SPF a chance to protect you!

This also applies if you wear makeup with an SPF rating, don’t substitute foundation or tinted moisturiser for a sunscreen, because you probably don’t use enough to reach that level of protection. It also doesn’t mean that if you use an SPF 30 sunscreen and an SPF 15 foundation you suddenly have SPF 45 protection on your face! The SPF coverage you have is the highest rating you’ve used. That said, makeup with SPF is a great way to both touch up and stay protected throughout the day.

Slip, slop, slap

Remember, while sunscreen is important, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice other sun safe habits. Wearing protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses can’t be replaced by sunscreen, nor should you now actively begin sunbathing in the middle of the day.

So now that you can hopefully navigate the sunscreen section of your local pharmacy or supermarket a little better, there’s no more excuses when it comes to giving yourself the best UV protection when you’re having fun in the sun.

To find out what sunscreen brands have the highest levels of customer satisfaction, see our helpful guide!

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