We all know how painful sunburn can be and how tough it is to get rid of an unwanted skin tan, making sunscreen a necessity for most people. There is also considerable awareness about SPF or sun protection factor ratings, with consumers recognizing that products with higher SPF ratings are more effective at preventing sunburn for a longer duration. But are SPF ratings really reliable and do higher SPF sunscreens provide enhanced protection for greater durations? That’s certainly what sunscreen manufacturers and advertisers would like us to think, but let’s find out if that’s true.
What SPF Ratings Mean
“With an SPF of 15, you have 15 times better skin protection, meaning that instead of spending just 15 minutes, you could spend up to 3 hours and 45 minutes in the sun before experiencing sunburn”
SPF numbers are based on a ratio to put a figure on sunburn risk and protection. On an average, a person would suffer sunburn in about 15 minutes of sun exposure, but the sunscreen’s SPF tells you for much longer you will be protected. With an SPF of 15, you have 15 times better skin protection, meaning that instead of in 15 minutes, you could spend up to 3 hours and 45 minutes in the sun before experiencing sunburn.
If we apply this logic to higher SPF products, it would appear that a sunscreen with an SPF of 100 can provide protection for over 24 hours! But, as scientists are now pointing out, this isn’t entirely true, as the SPF rating system is inadequate and often misleading.
What’s The Problem With High SPF Sunscreens
1. Overhyped Protection
“The increase in protection is negligible, especially when compared to SPF 50 products – while SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of the UV exposure, SPF 100 blocks 99 percent”
The sun hasn’t grown any brighter and climate change hasn’t destroyed our protective atmosphere yet, but advertisers need new gimmicks to market old products, so when it comes to sunscreens SPF ratings work fantastically on consumers, who trust the rating system. In reality, the increase in protection is negligible, especially when compared to SPF 50 products. While SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of the UV exposure, SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. Yes, a whole one percent more protection for probably twice the price! In reality, any sunscreen with an SPF value of even 30 will provide adequate protection if used properly.
2. Narrower Protection
“High SPF sunscreens focus primarily on UVB protection for sunburn, while neglecting UVA protection, thereby leaving you exposed to other types of skin damage and a compromised immune system”
SPF rating pertains to the ability to block UVB radiation, which causes sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers, but it does not grade UVA protection, which refers to UVA rays that penetrate deeper and adversely impact immunity, also greatly increasing the risk of melanoma. Ingredients and concentrations need to be balanced, but in high SPF products the balance is skewered in favor of UVB protection to get those higher SPF ratings. This means that there is little UVA protection, leaving you a lot more exposed to other types of skin damage.
3. Real World Protection
“Minor differences in intensity of sun exposure and thickness of application can drastically alter the effectiveness of the sunscreen, rendering the high SPF value useless”
While sunscreens with SPF of 100 may be effective in lab tests, real world conditions are quite different and most products do not stand up to rigorous testing. Minor differences in intensity of sun exposure and thickness of application can drastically alter the effectiveness of the sunscreen, rendering the high SPF value useless. According to some reports, the SPF rating for a product can even differ in different test labs, with one 100 SPF product giving results of SPF 37 and SPF 75 in different labs. This makes SPF rating highly misleading to consumers, while tricking them into a false sense of safety.
4. Encourages Complacency
“High SPF products lull consumers into a false sense of safety and confidence, resulting in over exposure to UV radiation”
It’s human nature – the safer we feel, the more complacent we get. If you think flying is safe, you are less likely to pay heed to safety instructions, and if you have high tolerance for alcohol, you will probably drink a lot more even though it’s just as damaging. Similarly, high SPF products lull consumers into a false sense of safety and confidence, resulting in over exposure to UV radiation. The damage in these cases is considerably worse than you’d sustain with low SPF products, as they also offer no UVA protection. Several studies have confirmed these suspicions, as sunbathers were found to spend considerably greater periods of time in the sun when using higher SPF products, possibly corresponding with an increased melanoma risk.
5. Wider Health Risks
“Chemical concentrations are much higher in high SPF sunscreens, exposing you to greater risk of tissue damage and hormone disruption”
While seeking greater sun protection with higher SPF sunscreens, consumers unwittingly expose themselves to higher concentrations of chemical ingredients that may themselves pose health risks. Many of these chemicals pose little risk in small doses, making low-SPF products a lot more effective at reducing sun damage, without increasing the risk of tissue damage and hormone disruption.
In the United States, the FDA has been of the opinion that SPF above 50 is misleading, and regulatory bodies in other territories like Australia, Europe, and Japan also cap SPF values at 30, and 50. From every scientific study we came upon and every expert we spoke to, it becomes apparent that SPF is to dermatologists what MP is to photographers – an overrated parameter that doesn’t really guarantee quality.
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