Cosmetics and Sun protection: Q&A

What is SPF?
SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor". This describes the amount of protection your sunscreen, sunblock, makeup, or moisturizer provides for you. The chemicals that comprise SPF protection block most of the harmful UVB rays emitted by the sun, while some even protect from the UVA rays only more recently recognized as damaging.

What do the numbers mean?
The numbers are an indicator of the amount of time your SPF enhanced product will protect you from sunburn without re-application, relative to the amount of time you can safely sustain exposure to the sun without any protection at all. While the amount of time a person can stay in the sun without risking sunburn varies depending on the expert consulted, and the individual considered, most often this is estimate fits into the 10-30 minute range. Therefore an SPF value of 15 basically means that you can safely stay in the sun 15 times longer than normal, approximately ranging from less than three hours to over seven hours depending on your initial safety range.

Why is SPF important?
Few of us nowadays haven't at least heard of the potential dangers of extensive sun exposure. While some of the more compelling reasons to limit sun damage include the risk of sun poisoning, skin cancers, melanomas, and other serious skin conditions, also equally convincing for some people are the purely cosmetic ramifications. People who tan significantly in their early years tend to appear to age faster. Their skin takes on a leathery, significantly wrinkled appearance at much younger age, and they have an extremely unattractive, even artificial, appearance.

My makeup has SPF, is this good enough?
No, although many modern cosmetics, particularly certain moisturizers, contain SPF ratings as high as 15, this protection is actually far more limited and should not be considered sufficient without additional sunscreen for prolonged exposure. Cosmetic SPF is usually absorbed by the skin rather than kept on the surface as makeup seeps into your pores. For minimal durations (ie. walking to and from your car) the SPF of your moisturizer or makeup may be sufficient, but for extended periods in the sun, or any summertime exposure, it is almost always necessary to have additional protection.

How do make certain that I get enough SPF protection?
For everyday amounts of sun exposure, ie. walking to and from your car, spending a few minutes outside on a break, etc, the SPF in your makeup might actually be enough, especially if coupled with a SPF enhanced moisturizer. If you are going to spend any more than 15 minutes or so in the sun on a given day, experts recommend that a sunscreen product should be applied under your makeup. Whenever possible try to apply sunscreen at least one hour before exposing yourself to significant sunlight, to allow the chemicals time to bind to your skin and provide maximum effectiveness. Even when wearing sunscreen, you should reapply every two hours, or after going in the water. Keep in mind, also, that your lips contain the most sensitive skin on your face, and should be protected with an SPF enhanced lip balm of some sort before each time you go out into the sun.

What SPF number is right for me?
Perhaps a better question to first ask yourself is "how easily do I burn?" Despite the theoretical duration of protection inherent in the numbers, the protection is not flawless, as SPF 15 only blocks out 93% of the sun's harmful UVB rays. Compare this to the 97% deflected by SPF 30 sunscreen, and it makes sense that experts recommend that fair-skinned people use at least this strength protection. Darker-skinned individuals should wear at least SPF 15 to prevent "sun spots" even when sunburn is less of a danger. So why not use the highest level possible? While athletes are recommended to use higher SPF levels because they tend to sweat away lesser protections more quickly, some experts express concerns that levels of protection that are significantly higher than necessary can lead to vitamin D deficiencies, since the sun provides most of our supply of this vitamin, particularly in Caucasians. The perfect number also varies based on your location. The best suggestion is to consult a dermatologist familiar with your background if you spend significant amounts of time in the sun and need advice on the proper protection. There have not, in fact, been any conclusive studies proving that SPF levels higher than 30 provide any greater protection than those with SPF 30, suggesting that reapplication is more effective than simply using excessively high numbers.

What else should I know?
No matter what the level of protection, traditional sunscreens prevent only sunburn by blocking the UVB rays. However UVA rays, the cause of sun tanning, previously considered harmless, can eventually cause other skin problems including enlarged pores and wrinkles. Thus, you want to look for a sunscreen that contains both UVB and UVA filters, while absorbing the gentle UV rays.