The Great Sunscreen Debate: What SPF Level is Best for You?

Can’t decide between SPF 15, 30 or 50? Here’s how to find your number…

This post comes to you from beauty contributor, Kari Molvar.

Sun-filled weekends and festival days are finally here, which means it’s time to up your SPF game. But with all the different protection levels out there, it can be hard to figure out what’s right for you. Is there really a difference between SPF 30 and 50? And why isn’t there one standard SPF number? To answer these questions and more, we turned to Jordana Mattioli, a NYC licensed medical esthetician and sun protection guru for some skin-saving advice.

First, a quick lesson in SPF. What exactly does it protect you from? 

SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and it measures your sunscreen protection from UVB rays. Think about this way: If your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (a factor of 15 times longer, hence SPF 15). It’s not an exact estimate though. Also, SPF does not measure how well a sunscreen will protect from UVA rays. While UVB rays are what cause physical sunburns, UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are associated with aging. They also increase the carcinogenic effects of UVB rays and increasingly are being seen as a cause of skin cancer on their own. That’s why it’s super important to look for a sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection.”

Why do we have different SPF levels—why don’t we just have one standard? 

The FDA didn’t introduce SPF measures until the mid 70s, and even though it’s been quite some time, they are very slow with adapting new regulations! But just this past year, some newer regulations were passed: The FDA now requires sunscreen products with SPF lower than 15 to include a warning. It reads: “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.” This same warning must appear on sunscreen products that are not broad spectrum.

Would you recommend a low level SPF 15 to anyone?

Darker skin types can use a lower level, such as SPF15, since they have more melanin in their skin, which does give some protection. However, I really recommend everyone start at SPF 30. Darker skin may not sunburn as easily as those with fair skin, but they are still at risk of skin damage from sun exposure.

What’s the difference between SPF 30 and 50? How do you choose between them?

SPF 30 is the most common level for most people and skin types. No sunscreen can block all UV rays, but what we do know is: SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. So, the difference between 30 and 50 is about 1 percent. But every bit of extra protection can be beneficial if you are very fair or spending a lot of time in direct sun! And most people apply less than the recommend amount (about one ounce for full body coverage), so the higher the number the better.

Are there any drawbacks to using a higher SPF?

There is often a false sense of security with higher numbers. You think since you’re wearing a higher level, you are invincible to the sun, and that’s just not the case. Most of us also forget that SPF is only at its most active for about two hours, so you need to reapply it often.

Does the product texture change as you move higher up in SPF level? How does it impact the look and feel of it?

The product texture can change, but it’s not very noticeable. It’s more about the types of sunscreens ingredients used. Physical sunscreens made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide will usually be slightly more opaque then chemical sunscreens. But many sunscreens now combine several different active chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients in order to provide broad-spectrum protection.

What SPF level do you wear?  

I personally wear SPF 30 every day, all year, rain or shine—it’s just become a habit! My skin is acne-prone and sensitive to chemical sunscreens so I stick with physical sunscreens only.

Looking for more fun-in-the-sun products? Check out our full collection here!

+ How do you practice safe sun? What’s your go-to SPF level? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by Jana Kirn.

Comments

  1. I always use a 50. My hair is blonde and my skin is very fair. It will take me about 3 weeks to develop a durable tan, that’s how long it takes my skin to adapt! I also find that when the SPF is higher your skins is tanned for longer.

    I also use an organic stick on my nose and cheeks when I surf in the summer.

    Always remember a SPF lip balm as well and for the first times also protect your scalp, ears and other sensitive areas like the back of your knees.

    A safe sun is a progressive one. Not spending too much time in the sun for the first few days helps.

    Carrots and tomatoes also help your skin to be more sun friendly so have more of those in the summer!

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