15, 30, 60, 80, broad spectrum, SPF, UVA, UVB… all these terms are enough to drive anyone crazy! What do they all mean?
Minerva Place got the 411 from Bruce A. Brod, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
What exactly does SPF mean?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which is the amount of time you’re protected against sunburn. For example, if you normally burn within one minute of being in the sun, if you use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, you’ll have 15 times longer in the sun (or 15 minutes) before you burn. Remember, though, SPF only refers to UVB rays.
UVB rays? What’s that?
Ultraviolet (UV) rays are an invisible kind of radiation that comes from the sun. UVB rays only reach the top layers of skin, and they’re the ones that are primarily responsible for sunburn.
However, there’s another kind of ray, the most common kind of sunlight at the earth’s surface, which reaches beyond the top layer of skin, called UVA. Those rays actually penetrate deep into the base layer of the skin and may have more of an effect on collagen and elastin, and therefore may lead to even more wrinkling and an overall more aged skin appearance.
Is higher better when it comes to SPF?
Yes and no. Higher is better, although the absolute numbers are misleading.
An SPF of 30 may be 97 percent effective, but an SPF 60 won’t give you double the amount of protection. In fact, the FDA has said that there is no evidence that an SPF over 50 provides any additional benefits.
I’m seeing “broad spectrum” on sunscreen labels these days. What does that mean?
This year the FDA introduced new sunscreen guidelines that provide you with more information about what type of UV protection a sunscreen offers and what a sunscreen can do.
Now, if a sunscreen says it’s broad spectrum, it means that the product has proven to the FDA that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
In order to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, the sunscreen must have broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of 15 or higher. Without both, the sunscreen only helps prevent sunburn.
Leslie Pepper is a freelance writer based in Merrick, NY who specializes in diet and health. Her work has been published in print magazines such as Real Simple, Woman's Day, and Parents, as well as online publications such as WebMD.com and Everydayhealth.com.