Ok, we’ve been banging on about why it’s just so goddam imperative to wear sunscreen in almost every single blog we’ve written, but other than a short paragraph or cheeky reminder here and there, we haven’t really done it the justice it deserves. That’s why this week – and next – we’re focusing solely on SPF to tell you absolutely everything you need to know about sun protection.
What is SPF?
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? SPF – or Sun Protection Factor – is what it, er, says on the bottle: The strength of the barrier you’re slathering onto your skin. It ranges from two to 70 and works by absorbing, scattering or reflecting the light, depending on the type of sunscreen you use.
A short history lesson for you: Sunblock, in one shape or form, has been around for centuries. In fact, the Egyptians would use ingredients such as rice bran, jasmine and lupine, although their concern was less weighted towards health and more for cosmetic purposes.
Many other methods were attempted over the years before everything changed in 1938, thanks to a Swiss chemistry student named Franz Greiter who decided to come up with a proper solution once and for all after getting sunburnt himself while climbing Mount Piz Buin (the diligent among you will perhaps recognise this popular suncare brand – well, that was the brand he created, containing both UVA and UVB filters. Clever, eh?).
The genius of SPF, however, did not come along for another few years and must be attributed to another dude named Rudolf Schulze.
And now for some maths: SPF measures a sunscreen’s effect against UV rays, so while an SPF of 15 may allow you to stay in the sun for up to 150 minutes without burning, you may not burn for up to 300 minutes with an SPF 30. For further comparison, SPF 30 allows approximately 3% of UV rays to hit your skin, whereas SPF 50 allows 2% – a whopping 50% less. However, the general advice – no matter what factor you’re using – is to reapply regularly – especially as sunburn is by no means the only thing SPF protects against.
Image: Robin Jay
Why is it so important?
Quite simply, sunscreen protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays – UVA and UVB – especially important in today’s age of climate change, where the earth’s natural shield – the ozone layer – is not as thick as it once was, meaning natural protection from the sun is heavily compromised.
UVB is what causes the obvious effects of unprotected exposure to the skin, such as sunburn, whereas UVA is more of a silent assassin, penetrating deeply to cause things like premature aging (in the form of wrinkles and the like), as well as a whole host of other skin conditions which rely on elastin. Vitally, both types can cause skin cancer, and with research continuing to show that applying sunscreen daily (yes, even in winter) drastically reduces your chances of falling prey to this disease, it really should be a staple in your handbag.
The reason it’s just as important in winter as it is in summer is simple: UV rays – particularly UVA – are not only harmful all year round but can also penetrate glass, meaning you could be exposed even from the comfort of your car or office. In fact, the more blistery the conditions, the more harmful the sun can be, as UV rays are multiplied by the reflective nature of snow.
Of course, sunscreen for the face is vital if you want to retain a youthful, healthy and vibrant look (especially because the sun can worsen already-existing skin conditions, such as rosacea – read more about that here), but due to the serious effects the sun can have all over your body, it really is important to make sure you’re always fully covered.
A final note
When it comes to SPF, the number you see on the bottle refers to the protection it offers from UVB rays. You’ll want to look for the UVA star rating for an indication of this protection, too. Unsurprisingly, the higher this rating, the better.
A final note, that you may not want to hear: While we’re all guilty of tan worshipping, achieving a ‘healthy glow’ via sunbathing is just physical evidence that you’ve damaged your skin (gulp.). This is because after you’ve been exposed to the sun, your body produces more melanin (the dark pigment that gives your skin its colour) in an attempt to absorb – and, thus protect – from UV radiation.
Tune in next week for practical tips on how to prevent sun damage and what to do if your skin is already showing some signs of wear and tear!