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May 15, 2019Sunscreen and Sun Protection

Does a Higher SPF Really Mean Better Protection?

Is there Any Difference Once We Get Above SPF 30?

Hi guys!  For those of you who are new to my channel, I’m Dr. Whitney Bowe, board certified dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. I was recently on vacation with my family in sunny, beautiful Anguilla. As a dermatologist mom, I get a lot of questions from other moms while our kids play in the pool. One of the questions I inevitably get on vacation is – how high SPF do I really need? Once you get to SPF 30, does it really make a difference? I wanted to answer this question for you guys, because it comes up a lot.

You may have heard that the FDA is considering capping the SPF max at 60.  While we await their final decision about just how high sunscreen manufacturers are allowed to go, I wanted to weigh in on what we know so far about higher SPF values and whether they are worth the additional cost that is oftentimes attached to these products.

So first of all, back to basics for just a minute – what is SPF? SPF stands for sun protection factor and measures how long a sunscreen will protect you from ultraviolet (UV) B rays. These are the rays that damage your skin’s outer layers, called the epidermis, where the most common forms of skin cancer occur. The SPF number tells you how long these UV rays would take to burn your skin using the product as directed as compared to using no sunscreen. So, for example, if you are wearing SPF 15, it will take you 15 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. If you are wearing SPF 30, it will take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.

So far, this is all pretty straightforward. It becomes tricky when we look at SPF values above 30. Take a look at this curve which compares SPF number to percentage of UVB protection. Based on this graph, it seems like anything above an SPF 30 might not be doing much more in the way of added protection. But let’s dive a little deeper and look at this problem through the eyes of a dermatologist.

Higher SPFs can be more forgiving. Meaning, in real life, in real time, most people don’t actually apply sunscreen exactly the way the instructions explain that you should – they don’t use enough of it, and they don’t reapply it as frequently as they should throughout the day. So, in the real world (not in a lab setting), your SPF 30 might end up protecting more like SPF 15 based on how you use it. If you reach for a tube that says SPF 50 or 60, you’re giving yourself a bit of a buffer – you’re allowing more room for human error.

There’s even a study comparing the SPF on the bottle to the SPF on your skin when people used sunscreens under real life conditions. That study showed that SPFs labeled as 30 and even 50 offered sun protection that was considered sub optimal by the authors. So that’s one argument in favor of higher SPFs.

Another study looked at people in Colorado who were instructed to use SPF 100 on one side of their face, and SPF 50 on the other. The side of the face where SPF 50 was applied was eleven times as likely to burn as compared to the side where SPF 100 was applied!

So, in a lab setting, does it really matter whether your SPF reads 30 or 50 or 60 or 100?  Probably not much. But in real life, when you’re using less than you should, you’re sweating some of it off, and you’re maybe not reapplying as often as you should, I think there’s something to be said for those higher #’s.

The FDA is actively collecting more data on this very topic, so I’ll keep you guys posted as more information is gathered. But for now, I think an SPF 50 plus is justified if you’re spending significant time outdoors, and don’t just rely on the sunscreen.  Go with a hat, sun protective clothing, and seek shade mid day.

If you found this video helpful, I’m sharing lots of other information both in video and blog, including topics like sun protective clothing, sunscreen safety, and why you might be burning even if you’re wearing sunscreen. And be sure to check out my new line of sun protective swim and loungewear at cabanalife.com.

So glad you’re taking the time to learn how to best protect your beautiful, healthy skin!

Dr. Whitney