A guide to sunscreen SPF ratings

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Sun protection is now more important than ever, but how do you know which type and strength of sunscreen you need to apply? Fortunately, all of the information you need can be found in the SPF rating.

It’s great to have fun in the sun, but it’s important to make SPF your BFF to keep yourself safe in the short and long-term. Whether you like to spend your time indoors in the air conditioning or outside getting a sweat on, you have to think about what kind of sun protection you’ll need, particularly when it comes to sunscreen.

Why is sunscreen necessary?

It may give life to our entire planet, but the sun can also be deadly. According to the Skin & Cancer Foundation, ultra-violet rays from the sun are a leading cause of cancer in humans. UVR produce DNA damage that leads to mutations in genes, which causes the development of skin cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the sun is the cause of up to 90% of all non-melanoma skin cancers, and that sunscreen is an easy way to limit the affects that UV radiation has on your skin. Sunscreen is useful for preventing both short-term damage like sunburns and minimising long-term damage, such as skin cancer and premature aging.

What are the major risk factors for skin cancer?

  • Heredity (genetics) plays a major role in the development of skin cancer in some families. Some people just get it and there’s nothing you can do
  • Fair-skinned people living near the hottest equatorial zones are at the highest risk of skin cancer
  • People with many moles or larger moles are also at a high risk of contracting skin cancer
  • Intense and chronic lifetime exposure to UV rays significantly increases your chances of skin cancer

What does SPF mean?

The SPF rating system was developed in 1962 by Franz Greiter, who wanted to measure the capacity of sunscreen required to block UV radiation. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which measures the amount of protection 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.

The sun-protection factor system (SPF) measures the length of time a sunscreen will protect your skin from burning compared to how long it would take without protection. To ensure protection for both kinds of rays, look for sunscreens that have both UVA and UVB protection, or say the words “Broad Spectrum”.

As well as this, you need to be vigilant in your sunscreen application. 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

What are the SPF ratings?

In Australia, the lowest form of SPF you’ll find in sunscreen is SPF 15, and you really shouldn’t be using anything with less than this. SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93% of the UV rays that try to hit your skin, so even using a ‘weaker’ sunscreen that’s SPF 15 can make a big difference.

The next level up is SPF 30, which blocks 97% of UV rays. While this doesn’t seem like much of difference compared to the half-strength SPF 15, it actually is. With SPF 30 sunscreens, you’re blocking half of the radiation that a sunscreen with SPF 15 would have let through to the skin.

The next highest level is the highest amount that is legal in Australia, but not worldwide – SPF 50. SPF 50 provides an extra 1% of protection compared to SPF 30, giving it 98% coverage in total.

The highest you can get to is SPF 100, which blocks 99% of all UV rays from getting to your skin, but these aren’t legally sold in Australia.

Which SPF rating do I need?

Sunscreen provider Banana Boat has an extremely useful chart that you can refer to when you’re looking to lather up.

sunscreen strength guide

Source: Banana Boat

It really all comes down to how light your skin is and how often you plan to be outdoors. For example, if you’re very fair-skinned and are spending all day outside, then you will need to reapply some SPF 50 sunscreen often since you can’t get any SPF 100 here – alternatively, you might need to find some shade.

At the other end of the spectrum, a dark-skinned person who is just going for a short walk outside might not even need to put sunscreen on at all, as they can actually use sunscreen that is less powerful than SPF 15.

People with fairer skin are more prone to burning, whereas people with darker skin aren’t likely to need SPF 50+ for everyday activities. For the average Australian, SPF 15 will be sufficient for normal daily activities where you experience minimal sunlight, or 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 30 or 50 would be a safe bet.

How much sunscreen do you need to use?

There really isn’t a thing as wearing too much sunscreen, as the chemicals within it don’t really cause any damage to the skin when they’re absorbed. The general rule of thumb is to use one quarter of a teaspoon for your face, another quarter for your neck. For your body parts – arms and legs mostly – you’ll want the equivalent of about 1 shot glass worth of sunscreen. The only downside to using too much sunscreen is that you’ll look a bit silly, but if that doesn’t bother you then by all means apply as much as you can.

No matter how much sunscreen you apply, you should always make sure it is SPF 15 or higher, or 30 or higher if you plan on spending an extended period of time outdoors. In addition to sunscreen, seek as much shade as you can and wear protective clothing whenever possible. Wearing sunscreen shouldn’t replace sun safe habits!

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