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Skin Care—Then and Now: Sunscreen

By: Ulrike Jacob
Posted: April 30, 2013, from the May 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Sunscreen Ingredients Chart

Sunscreen Ingredients Chart

Figure courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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How much SPF is enough? Is a higher SPF better? What about UVA and UVB protection? These are only some of the questions consumers are asking. It is now known that UVB rays cause sunburns, but UVA rays are responsible for skin cancer and premature aging. So, it is important that both you and your clients become aware of which products provide this broad-spectrum protection. (See Sunscreen Ingredients Chart.)

Demystifying SPF

Generations ago, the best known way to protect yourself from the sun was to wear long-sleeved clothes or a bonnet. The effects of the sun were clear when people ventured into the beaming light with no protection and ended up with bad visible burns. Now, the science and understanding of the sun’s rays and the effect they have on skin has advanced to the point where only sunscreen needs to be applied to provide your body with the protection it needs. Throughout the years, sunscreens have taken a dramatic turn for the better when it comes to skin protection. (See Sunscreen Through the Years.)

Although the SPF on a bottle of sunscreen is commonly referred to when shopping for sun protection, few clients actually know what the number system means. The SPF of a sunscreen tells you two things: how long you can stay in the sun and how well the formula filters the sun’s rays. First, if you take the amount of minutes you can stay in the sun before turning pink and then multiply that number by the SPF rating, you get the amount of time you can spend in the sun using that sunscreen. For example, if you are normally able to stay in the sun for 10 minutes without burning and the SPF of your sunscreen formula is 20, and it is applied correctly, your sunscreen will protect you for 200 minutes before your skin starts to burn. How well the formula filters the suns rays goes as follows.

  • SPF 2 blocks about 50% of UVB rays.
  • SPF 10 blocks about 85% of UVB rays.
  • SPF 15 blocks about 95% of UVB rays.
  • SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays.

Above SPF 30, the increased percentage protection is minimal. Instead, there is a longer period of time before sunburn takes place. Regardless, experts do recommend you re-apply at least every two hours.

A chronology of the FDA and sunscreen safety

The marketing and labeling of sunscreen has created much consumer confusion over the years, and a proposal to clarify sunscreen marketing has been in the works by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for decades. And as of 2013, it has finally been implemented.

Find out more about the impact of the sun on skin and the best sun protection methods from the lesson on sun in the Physiology of the Skin series, brought to you by Skin Inc. Video Education.