With the introduction of SPF50+ sunscreens into Australia in late 2012, early 2013, there had been, and continues to be, a belief by some (including some fairly reputable organizations), that there is a negligible increase in protection as compared to previous generation SPF30+ sunscreens. Given SPF is the acronym for ‘Sun Protection Factor’, logic should prevail that 50+ provides considerably better protection than 30 and it is, twice as good in fact!
The articles that have been written dismissing SPF50+ will always raise a supposed minor change in protection by referring to a “1.3% increase in protection” which is an incorrect representation of a factual figure. There is a 1.3% increase, however the increase relates to the absorbance, where SPF30 sunscreen absorbs 96.67% of UVB radiation (and plenty of UVA also), whilst SPF50 sunscreen absorbs 98.00% of UVB radiation (SPF50+ actually absorbs over 98.33%). If we presume an SPF30 sunscreen was to provide 300 minutes of protection, an SPF50 sunscreen certainly does not offer a paltry additional 3.9 minutes in the sun (300 minutes multiplied by the supposed “1.3% increase in protection”).
Absorbance is a measure of a physical property of a sunscreen, a moment in time, the missing piece of the puzzle, the piece that is used in calculating the SPF of a sunscreen, is time. Attempting to measure protection by referencing absorbance alone is like trying to measure speed by referencing distance and not accounting for time, something that would have Galileo rolling in his grave.
What is more critical for a sunscreen in terms of protection is not what the sunscreen absorbs, but what is does not, this is referred to as transmission, the amount of UV radiation that is not absorbed and has passed through the sunscreen onto the skin where it can cause damage. If an SPF50+ sunscreen transmits 1.67% (100% - the 98.33% absorbed) and an SPF30+ sunscreen transmits 3.33%, it quickly becomes obvious that the SPF50+ is transmitting half the amount of UVB radiation through and absorbing 200% more UVB radiation, that 1.3% sounds like allot now!
If the average person burns in 10 minutes, the amount of time a person can spend in the sun before becoming sun burnt (and would be considered ‘protected’) can be determined using the following simple equation:
Time = 10 minutes / Transmission (%)
Now let’s apply that to some SPF values:
- SPF0 – Not a valid SPF
- SPF1 - 10 minutes (no protection, calculated on 100% transmission), realizing this is not an valid SPF from a product perspective, but our skins natural protection factor.
- SPF2 - 20 minutes
- SPF30 - 300 minutes
- SPF50 - 500 minutes
- SPF50+ - 600 minutes
Now in graph form:
Its worth keeping in mind that the above calculations assume the sunscreen is used appropriately, which it often isn’t and this is largely the reason why SPF50+ sunscreens are being made available, to account for improper use (I’ll discuss this more later, suffice to say, people are still getting sun burnt!).
Amanda at Realize Beauty offers a more visual explanation on her blog.
Websites proliferating ‘The Myth’:
•Cancer Council Australia
•Australian Government Departments
•The Media in general
Research & Development Manager
Development chemist / Expertise with Sunscreen Technology