SPF: Are You Really Protecting Yourself From the Sun?
When You Use a Product with SPF is this Really Enough?
The answer is: Sort of, but not really.
When you're using a product with an SPF rating you are only partially protecting your skin from immediate signs of damage, skin cancer and long-term aging. Many people don't know that there are several different types of UV light which create damage, both immediate and long term, in your skin. Most SPF filtering products only filter out certain UV light.
Of note, SPF is ONLY a measurement on your protection from UVB.
Didn't know this?
You're not alone. Read On.
What is UVA and UVB?
The sun gives off UVA and UVB light waves. Ultraviolet radiation is a type of light invisible to the human eye. UVA and UVB rays have different wavelengths and effects on the body. UVA rays are longer and cause aging and wrinkling of the skin, as well as cataracts and skin cancer. UVB rays are shorter and cause sunburn. UVA and UVB rays can also cause damage to the eye and sensitivity to light.
UVB is filtered out by SPF rated-products.
Sun Protection Factor = SPF
PA rating filters out UVA rays.
In the US and Canada, the PA rating is not regulated the same way it is in Japan and South Korea. The measurement of PA is linked to the PPA testing. PPD, the persistent Pigment Darkening rating doesn’t indicate the exact amount of UVA protection a product provides; instead, this test is converted into a country or region’s scoring system. The US has not standardized how US cosmetic manufactures must label their products UVA rating.
Does UVA / UVB Exposure Cause Skin Cancer?
Exposure to UVA and UVB rays from the sun, and from tanning beds, has been linked to skin cancer including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma.
Now that you know a little about UVA and UVB rays, let's talk about how you can measure it and apply this to prevention of UV radiation damage to your skin.
- UVA = Ultra Violet A (long wave which causes accumulating DNA damage and pigmentation changes).
- UVB = Ultra Violet B (short wave which causes a sunburn).
One of the most familiar rating labels, or Sun Protection Factor or SPF. This refers to your sunscreen or cosmetic’s ability to shield your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UVB) rays. UVB is the LEAST damaging of the UV rays which affect your skin. Essentially, the SPF number indicates how long it will take for your skin to burn when exposed to the sun.
The average person’s skin begins to burn after 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure. An SPF 20 product would then protect the skin from burning for about 20 times longer —so doing the math: 20 x 10 = about 200 minutes.
If your skin has more natural protection from the sun's rays, let's say it takes you 20 minutes of sun exposure to burn, 20 x 20 = about 400 minutes.
However, sunscreen must be reapplied at least every two to four hours, as sunscreen is quick to sweat off or wash off in the water.
So if SPF measures a product's ability to block UVB rays, what does PA++++ mean?
Never heard of a PA Rating? The PA rating measures the amount of protection your product provide against UVA rays.
Currently, only five countries utilize UVA testing: Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and Australia. In Japan, PPD results are grouped and simplified into PA measurements.
Does Your Sunscreen Have a PA++++ Rating?
For decades, Japanese skin care manufacturers have been very aware of this and as a result Japanese and South Korean skin care products, which are manufactured specifically to protect your skin from the sun, will have a PA rating AND an SPF rating. You may have occasionally seen this on products.
The Japanese and South Koreans take protecting their skins from all forms of UV very, very seriously. Unlike the UK, Germany, Australia and the US, the Japanese and South Koreans have even upgraded their PA+++ rating to PA++++ which is the most protective and is rarely seen outside of premium Japanese and South Korean skin care.
What is the PA Rating on Sunscreen?
PA, stands for Protection of UVA Rays, is a rating system developed by the Japanese.
The PA scale is as follows:
- PA+ - little UVA protection
- PA++ - moderate UVA protection
- PA+++ - high UVA protection
- PA++++ - extremely high UVA protection
Ideally, you want to purchase a sunscreen that has both an SPF AND a PA rating.
As a culture, Japan and South Korea demand high-performance sunscreen, which is widely understood by even the most causal cosmetic user in these countries. They [Japanese and South Koreans] routinely apply several products in the morning, several with PA and SPF ratings, layering them. Then they re-apply their daily sunscreen every two hours...sometimes right over makeup...which is what the manufactures recommend.
Most people don't know this little factoid.
- UVA energy doesn’t cause as much redness or sunburn, but it damages our skin’s genes, which leads to mutations and in the worst cases, cancer. UVA also causes pigmentation issues, such as sunburn, tanning, activation of melasma, (Pregnancy Mask) and darkening of skin after an injury. Of course, it is also responsible for age spots.
- For our skin's health and beauty, UVA speeds up skin aging (thick, leathery skin, wrinkles, lines, age spots and sagging) and can also cause hyperpigmentation, as I've mentioned.
- UVA radiation accounts for most of the sun’s rays, penetrating into the deeper levels of skin and is present all through the day, even on cloudy days. Those cloudy days at the beach when you were surprised by a sunburn, this was the result of UVA rays.
- An easy way to remember? UVA = UV-Aging
What is UVC?
Ultraviolet C (UVC) rays have the shortest wavelengths of the UV rays with the highest energy levels of the three types of UV rays. As a result, UVC rays can cause serious damage to all life forms on earth.
Fortunately for us, UVC radiation is completely filtered out by the ozone layer most of the time. As a result, during the year these highly damaging rays never reach the ground. Thank goodness for small favors, right?
FYI, man-made sources of UVC include welding torches, special bacteria-killing light bulbs, and mercury lamps.
Although not considered a risk for skin cancer, UVC rays can cause severe damage to your eyes and skin, including burns, lesions, and ulcers on the skin. With the ozone being thinner during the summer months you have to be extra vigilant with your sunscreen use and be aware of which UV rays you are actually filtering out.
What is an UV Index?
The UV Index is an international standard measurement of the strength of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation at a particular place on the globe and specific time of day. The higher the UV Index, the greater your need for protection from the sun (e.g., with sunscreen, clothing, and sunglasses).
How is the UV Index Measured?
UV Index is measured using a special instrument called a erythema action spectrum (EAS) instrument. Essentially this instrument measures the strength of UV light to cause redness to your skin.
The scale is 0 to 11, with 0 being low and 11 being very high. The UV index is generally higher during the summer months. One of the main reasons for this is that there is a larger number of hours of sunlight during summer months.
Another reason is that the ozone layer is thinner during the summer months.
What is the UV Index Forecast Used For?
The UV Index forecast is used to protect human health and to help preserve the environment (e.g., for agricultural, forest, or other plant-based ecosystems).
Specifically, the UV Index forecast is used to alert the public to the risk of sunburn and skin damage, as well as to other negative effects of overexposure to the sun, such as eye damage. Good to know.
When Should You Wear Your Sunscreen?
Definitely check with your doctors since they know best about your medical history, but I recommend to my clients to wear sunscreen during all daylight times, essentially whenever the sun is out. Around the globe, this hold true in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
In general, UV rays are strongest between the hours of 10am and 4pm. It is also important to re-apply your sunscreen every two hours. Some sunscreens are made to glide right over your makeup without disturbing any of your application. Nifty trick, right?
NOT re-applying your sunscreen every two hours is one of the easiest ways to age yourself from the sun. Unwittingly, you're allowing UV damage to filter through your once-a-day sunscreen use.
Does UV From the Sun Age My Skin?
Remember those UVA rays?
The UVA rays in sunlight are the chief cause of freckles, sunburns, age spots, loss of skin elasticity, reduced immune response in your skin, and skin cancer. People with fair skin are more likely to develop skin cancer than darker-skinned people.
However, ALL people are susceptible to skin cancer from UVA exposure regardless of their skin tone. This is where the Fitzpatrick scale comes in handy for your doctors, your estheticians and you to arm yourself with knowledge you can use.
How Does Your Fitzpatrick Scale Rating Affect Your Skin's Ability to Withstand UV?
The Fitzpatrick scale (aka the Fitzpatrick Skin Typing Test or Fitzpatrick Phototype Scale) was developed in 1975 by a Harvard Medical School dermatologist, Thomas Fitzpatrick, to classify a person's complexion in relation to their tolerance to sunlight (UV light rays). (UVA and UVB were not so understood then.)
It's used by many health professionals and estheticians to determine how a patient will respond to facial treatments and product recommendations.
The Fitzpatrick Scale Classifications
The Fitzpatrick scale includes six different skin types and skin melanin-linked shades in respect to their tolerance of the sun. Lighter skins let in larger amounts of all light wavelengths from sunlight and darker skins filter out some of these same wavelengths.
- Type I (scores 0–6) always burns, never tans (palest skin tone; freckles)
- Type II (scores 7–13) usually burns, tans minimally (light colored but darker than the fairest skin)
- Type III (scores 14–20) sometimes mild burn, tans uniformly (golden honey or olive complexion)
- Type IV (scores 21–27) burns minimally, always tans well (moderate brown)
- Type V (scores 28–34) very rarely burns, tans very easily (dark brown)
- Type VI (scores 35–36) never burns (deeply pigmented dark brown to darkest brown)
Again...ALL SKIN TONES...regardless of how much melanin pigment they have, have an equal chance of getting skin cancer from UV exposure. True Fact!
And because of this, ALL SKIN TONES and tones benefit from consistent use of UV protection. Having darker skin doesn't mean you don't have to use UV protection.
What is SPF?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and it’s a measurement of how long you can stay in the sun before your skin reddens. Yep, that's right.
SPF is an indication of how many times longer than this baseline measurement a product protects your skin from UVB, which is the sun’s burning rays.
And because SPF ONLY applies to the UVB rays, and doesn't apply to the UVA rays, SPF is only half of the equation. Remember, I delved into UVA and PA+++ above?
Every skin tone is different. How does this factor into which SPF product to use?
Read on for this answer.
SPF products come in various levels including SPF 15, SPF 30, SPF 50 and more. How does this work?
For the sake of easy math let’s say that your skin has is a Fitzpatrick Type II. Your skin will start to redden when exposed to the sun in just 10 minutes. You would take that ten minutes and multiply it by the SPF number you are using.
For example, if you're using an SPF 30 product you'll calculate it this way:
- 10 minutes x 30 (SPF) = 300 minutes.
- Take the 300 minutes and divide by 60 minutes.
- Your final number equals 1 hour – 300 minutes / 60 minutes = 5
- The result is ~5 hours of sun protection..at least in theory.
Many SPF products are not water resistant, nor rub resistant, so you wouldn’t be able to rely on five hours of protection if you were swimming, exercising, touching your face, toweling off, or out in the sun for long periods of time.
How can this be true?
Because most sunscreens are intended for normal, everyday sun exposure, such as walking to your local cafe, getting your mail, shopping and casual exposure a you go about your daily life, not a full day in direct sun.
If you're going to spend a full day, or at the least a lot of time in direct sun, you should consider a stronger sunscreen than usual.
And always, always re-apply, re-apply, and re-apply.
Consider re-applying like crazy the times you are:
- At the Beach
- Horseback Riding
- Bike Riding
- At Farmers Markets
- Outdoor Parties
- Marathons / Triathlons
- Attending or Participating in Swim Meets
- Attending Outdoor events
- And...overcast days at the beach are deceptively damaging.
These are just SOME of the longer UV exposure times in a normal life.
Are You Using Enough SPF?
Based on industry standard lab tests, the proper amount of sunscreen for your body is ~1 oz. (or 30ml) which is just enough to fill a shot glass.
SPF is measured in a standardized lab test where the researchers SLATHER the SPF product onto a glass slide before exposing it to UV light. Yes...I said 'slather' it on. This is how it's tested in the lab, how's it's intended for consumer use ...and yet this is rarely how people actually use it.
Are you applying this much? Consider that you need at least a teaspoon (5 grams) of sunscreen just for your face.
Over this 5-hr time span your protection from UVB diminishes as your SPF products gets rubbed off, absorbs UVB light becoming less effective and generally degrades.
This is why sunscreen manufacturers recommend re-applying every two hours to maintain a continuous maximum protective level for your skin.
"Apply SPF liberally," is how the manufacturers phrase their instructions to you, the consumer.
You Don't Get Immediate SPF Protection...Your SPF Needs to Activate.
Apply your sunscreen at least 15 to 20 minutes before going into the sun. If your skin is already red from the sun, the damage has already started.
Are you protecting everywhere that gets sun exposure?
It’s important to protect every exposed area of the skin including:
- Your ears
- Around your eye area...not too close
- Any bald spots
- Back of your neck
- Tops of your hands
- Top of your feet
- Your forearms
Having a even skin tone on your face, neck and chest...only to have darker or red earlobes...is an sunscreen-user faux paux.
Wearing protective clothing, such as long sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats, increases your overall protection..and you can get fashionable or creative with these. Have fun.
Also wear protective film sunglasses that provide UVA and UVB protection. Not only can your eyelids burn, but exposure to the UVB rays can lead to cataracts.
With this thorough explanation of what is the UV index and how to protect yourself against the most damaging rays, you're probably wondering where to get PA++++ product?
Many of our Dr. Este and TIZO products have BOTH an SPF and PA++++ rating, the highest rating in the world for protecting your skin against aging, pigmentation, and photo-oxidative damage.
Check out some of our products which I highly recommend them are:
- TIZO2 Facial Primer Non-Tinted Mineral Sunscreen, SPF40, PA++++
- Dr. Esthe UV Protector, SPF 50+, PA+++
- Dr Esthe Sun Protection Cream, SPF 50, PA+++
Now that you learn on how you can protect yourself from the sun, let's find out what the UV forecast is in your area!
Get Your UV Index Forecast - Enter Your Zip
About Genna Pinnick
Genna holds a degree in Biology and an accomplished Concierge Esthetician currently serving Silicon Valley's high-power female entrepreneurs. In 1990, she earned the Premiere European Esthetics Certification of CIDESCO Diplomat in International Esthetics.
Since 1990, she founded and managed her own skincare clinic, growing it through referrals, newspaper, TV and Radio appearances, and as a guest writer in the local Health & Beauty section of the newspaper.
As an early member of the NCA's Esthetics America Education & Trends Team, she offered professional development at the national, state and local level, immersing herself in advanced training from such industry greats as Erica Miller, Robert Lees, and Rebecca James Gadberry.
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