Let’s face it – sunscreen labelling is confusing, and our lack of understanding means that most of us are not getting the protection our skin needs. In a survey of 2,000 British adults by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in 2015, only eight per cent knew the true meaning of the SPF rating on product labels – or that protection from harmful UVA rays is typically indicated by a completely separate star rating. Do you know your UVA from your UVB and UVC, or what SPF really means? We break it down.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society study found that just 75 per cent of us know that SPF is the acronym for sun protection factor, and even less know what it really means. The SPF rating on your sunscreen refers to protection from UVB rays only – and does not also include protection from harmful UVA rays (these are typically indicated by a separate “star” rating). The number refers to the level of protection offered – two is the lowest level and 50+ the highest.
UVB (short-wave ultraviolet B) rays are the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn, damaging the skin’s more superficial epidermal layers and capable of causing skin cancer. They make you look bad, they feel bad, they’re terrible for you. Don’t let them near you.
According to data from the Skin Cancer Foundation, UVA (long-wave ultraviolet A) rays account for up to 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. Able to penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays, these are the ones you need to watch out for when it comes to skin ageing and wrinkles, though they too can cause skin cancer. So you see, they’re pretty important too. Those sunscreens that are labelled “broad spectrum” offer both UVA and UVB protection.
Fortunately UVC (short-wave ultraviolet C) rays don’t reach us as they’re completely filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere – these are the most damaging and harmful type of UV radiation of all so be thankful they’re kept at bay.
The very lowest SPF protection level recommended by the NHS or Cancer Research UK, whatever your skin type. The British Association of Dermatologists recommends 30. Don’t even think about a 2 or a 4.
The minimum “star rating” recommended for UVA protection during prolonged sun exposure. Ratings range from one star to five, though some may just say “medium” or “high”. It’s confusing, but once you learn what to look for you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Cancer Research UK measures the amount of suncream we should be applying in spoons – around two teaspoonfuls of sunscreen if you’re just covering your head, arms and neck, or around two tablespoonfuls if you’re covering your entire body.
The number of minutes before heading out into the sun that you should apply your sunscreen.
2 to 3
The shelf life in years of most sun creams, though you should check each bottle to be sure. Storing them in hot places can ruin their protective chemicals, so you should also bear this in mind when reusing last year’s creams. Also if you’re applying it as liberally as you should be, you’ll probably use it all up.
11 to 3
The hours between which you should step into the shade – right in the middle of the day when you’re at the most risk of sun damage. Call it another excuse for a long lunch.