Increase Your SPF IQ

Decode your client’s SPF for maximum at-home usage

As skin care professionals, we recommend sun protection products to every client. This can elicit many questions from our clients. At this point, most everyone has heard that they should have an SPF in their routine. But most people want to know the which, how, and why of it all. Do you have those answers? Do we really know why we recommend one product over another? We’d like to outline some key considerations to raise your SPF IQ.

What is the point of SPF?

There are two main damaging types of radiation that are produced by the sun. Ultraviolet A radiation (UVA, “aging”) is the longer wave UV ray that absorbs deeper in the skin layers, suppressing the immune system. This can lead to a breakdown of collagen and elastin and result in photo-aging. UVA rays are constantly present, no matter the season or weather, and are strong enough to penetrate clothing and glass. Known as “the tanning ray,” it is often assumed that this is the safer of the two frequencies, but newer research indicates these rays can damage keratinocytes in the epidermal layers (where most skin cancers begin). The high-pressure sunlamps used in tanning salons emit doses of UVA as much as 12 times that of the sun.

Overexposure to harmful sun radiation is an avoidable risk.

Ultraviolet B (UVB, “burning”) is the shorter wave UV ray that stops in the upper layers of the skin, causing sunburns, skin damage, and also contributes to skin cancer. This may only seem like viable information for people who spend their days outdoors in the elements, yet most of the damage occurring is through daily exposure during general activities such as driving, walking, and running errands. These key factors are the main reasons a daily application SPF is so critical.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, a measure of how well sunscreen protects against UVB rays. (UVA protection isn’t rated.) The number that follows dictates how long after a certain length of time the product will protect the skin above its own natural barrier. These numbers often seem vague and confusing, especially to a consumer.

In 2011, the FDA introduced new guidelines for SPF products, including Broad Spectrum regulations. Sunscreens that pass the new broad spectrum test will have demonstrated that they also provide ultraviolet A (UVA) protection that is proportional to their UVB protection. These regulations are based on a scale of actual product usage amount – meaning they measure a precise dosage of ingredients per square inch of skin necessary to give full SPF coverage.

Sunscreen or sunblock?

There is a difference. Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers. Physical sunblocks contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They are often referred to as physical blockers. These compounds and their concentration percentages can be found under the “Active Ingredients” section on a product’s ingredient deck.

Choosing the right SPF can seem like such a personal decision and can leave consumers divided. To guarantee best overall protection, a blend of chemical and physical ingredients is recommended. This is especially important for a client who is often outdoors or who has a history of excessive sun exposure or a family history of skin cancer.

Some clients complain about the thick feel of sunscreen containing physical SPF. For them, a chemical block may be best. There are newer micronized physical blocks on the market that may also help eliminate this concern.

Some people may be sensitive to the heat exchange byproduct of a chemical SPF. If your client says they have reacted to a sunscreen in the past, try sampling a sunblock that contains only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Many physical block formulations also have the added benefit of being anti-inflammatory.

Is SPF100 better than SPF50?

No sunscreen can filter out 100 percent of the UVB rays. The SPF ratings given work on a bell curve, so an SPF 15 filters about 93 percent of UVB, while an SPF 50 filters 98 percent of UVB rays.

The introduction of high-value sunscreen products on the skin care market can lead to a false sense of security with consumers. This could cause them to spend more time in the sun well after the product has stopped working.

People often assume the SPF they get in their makeup and cosmetic products is plentiful, but knowing the amount of product needed to meet standard SPF criteria, we can see how this would not be effective. In fact, layering products with varying SPF values can help achieve a more balanced protection and is great to recommend to clients that are light-handed with product application.

It’s important to note, however, that when you are layering multiple SPF products, you do not add the SPF values. Layering makeup foundation with an SPF 15 and a powder with an SPF 20 does not mean you have an SPF 35. The highest SPF is considered your correct protection.

How much and how often should I apply?

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying one teaspoon of sunscreen for the face and two tablespoons of sunscreen to your whole body. Sunscreens should be applied a minimum of 30 minutes before you begin sun exposure. This gives time to absorb fully and activate on the skin.

Consumers should also be aware that no sunscreens are “waterproof” because all sunscreens eventually wash off. Sunscreens can only be labeled as “water resistant” if they are tested according to the required SPF test procedure. Products labeled as “water resistant” sunscreens will also be required to state whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when swimming or sweating, and all sunscreens will be required to provide directions on when to reapply.

Overexposure to harmful sun radiation is an avoidable risk. It may feel like a journey, but it is possible to match a client with their perfect SPF product. Education on proper application (and re-application) techniques and making sure clients feel educated enough to decode the labeling are all part of being a licensed skin care professional.