Do We Really Need SPF50? We Got Experts to Weigh In

Getty / Delmaine Donson

As the school holidays quickly approach and many of us will be jetting off to warmer climates and purchasing that all important sunscreen. As a beauty editor I’m an advocate for wearing SPF on my face everyday, but even I have to admit when it comes to the rest of my body I often forget, until I’m on holiday, either in the UK or abroad, and then I will ensure my body is covered in sunscreen from top to toe. And it seems I’m not alone, a survey by Face the Future, which launched its 366 Days of SPF campaign with a YouGov, found 40% of people the 20,000 people asked, only use SPF when abroad and 35% wear SPF30 or less.

In the past, when sunbathing was still a thing, I remember starting with a SPF 15 and then slowly lowering the factor as my tan developed believing my skin had become accustomed to the sun. Fast forward a decade and our awareness of wearing high factor SPF and the damage the sun can do in terms of skin cancer and ageing has increased 10-fold. Which is why I find these stats surprising. I would never go in the sun without a good layer of high factor sunscreen, with a minimum of SPF 30 at all times or let my children wear anything less than SPF50 – but according to the research 14% of people still do not wear any sunscreen at all and only 8% of people reapply their sunscreen throughout the day.

There has also been a recent furore online with comments and videos discussing why we shouldn’t be using high factor sunscreen at all or and that SPF 30 is in fact better for your skin than SPF50. With all this information and nearly 40% of people still not worried about the damage the sun can cause, it seems we still haven’t got our heads around the importance of SPF to help fight cancer, ageing and skin damage.

I decided to speak to a leading dermatologist and skin experts who could explain the truth about SPF and why you really need to stay protected in the sun. I’ll also recommend some of my favourite tried and tested SPFs, depending on your needs.

Experts Featured in This Article

Dr Christine HallDr Christine Hall is a fully qualified, GMC registered, General Practitioner in medical aesthetics.

Ava Chandler-MatthewsFounder of Ultra Violette an Australian SPF company

Kimberly MeadClinical Lead at beauty retailer Face the Future

What Is the Difference Between SPF50 and SPF30?

“It is widely recommended that we should use an SPF of at least 50. But in actual fact, the difference between the level of protection that each offer is similar,” explains Dr Hall. “SPF 50 provides approximately 98% protection from UVB rays whilst SPF 30 provides approximately 97% protection. This rises to 99% protection for SPF 100 but it is important to note that no SPF can provide 100% protection.”

So does this mean we should all be ditching our SPF50 and moving to SPF30? “Whilst the percentage may seem small and insignificant it does become important if you are spending prolonged periods in the sun or have specific skin conditions such as actinic keratosis,” Hall explains, “and the higher the SPF the better.”

It is also worth noting that the SPF needs to target both UVA and UVB rays, this is usually worded as broad spectrum on the bottle. “When selecting suncream, it’s crucial to ensure it provides broad-spectrum protection,” explains Kimberley Medd, clinical lead at Face the Future. “This means it protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) measures how well the suncream protects against UVB rays.” This means the superficial damage the sun can cause such as burning, where as UVA rays penetrate deeper and can cause long term skin damage, ageing or cancer.

What Should We Consider When Buying SPF

There are a couple of things to consider here in terms of what you want the SPF to do and where you are wearing the SPF. However, I believe you are far more likely to wear a product if you like how it feels and looks on your skin. “Personally, I’d look for hydration – ingredients like glycerin, vitamin E,” says Ava Chandler-Matthews, founder of Ultra Violette. “Antioxidants like vitamin C, E, green tea are always beneficial too.”

If you have any inflammatory skin issues like acne or rosacea, then you may need to consider other factors too – especially for your face. “I would look for a zinc oxide-based SPF as the inclusion of zinc is a wonderful anti-inflammatory, ” explains Chandler-Matthews. “It really depends on their skin type and concern but seeking out the highest SPF number, primary sunscreen (that is a product sold primarily as a SPF – and not a moisturiser or foundation with SPF) should be where you start,” she tells PS UK.

Common SPF Myths: Debunked

“Not applying enough!” Chandler-Matthews tells PS UK. “Most people do not wear the correct amount of SPF. It’s a 1/4 teaspoon for face.” And when it comes to your body you should be looking at 1-2 shot glasses filled with sunscreen.

If you’ve been relying on the SPF in moisturiser or foundation to work for your face then think again. “This is a biggie and it’s more common than you’d think,” says Chandler-Matthews. “It doesn’t count in makeup alone, even if it’s a foundation with SPF 50+, you’d need to apply so much to get adequate coverage – hello mask face!”

One of the biggest misconceptions is how often you should reapply, it should be every two to three hours and every time you have been in the water or been heavily sweating. The other is, don’t just apply on holiday. “You do need to wear it every day,” Chandler-Matthews tells PS UK, even if you are indoors. “UVA rays penetrate through windows so reach you inside an office or in your car too.”

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