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SPF - Why is it important and which one is best for my skin type

We hear you; sunscreen isn’t the most exciting subject. In fact, the topic can usually send most people’s eyes rolling, as the mantra “YOU MUST APPLY SPF DAILY” is drummed into us constantly. For good reason! There are two main concerns when you’re in the sun – skin cancer and skin ageing.

Let’s be honest, the world of SPF can be overwhelming. We try to give you the facts so that wearing sunscreen daily starts to feel less like a mandatory chore and more like an active choice.

The Basics

Finding just the right formula for your skin can be tricky. Some sunscreens feel sticky, cause breakouts, or leave skin feeling greasy. The simple fact is, if you don’t like how sunscreen feels, you’re less likely to wear it.

A great sunscreen can block the harmful effects of UVA and UVB, protecting you from:

  • Loss of collagen and elasticity levels in the skin.

  • Reduce the likelihood of pigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles, as well as your risk of skin cancer.

  • Negative impacts of environmental stressors, pollution and the blue light exerted from our devices.

"Sunscreen, when properly applied, provides protection against sunburn and skin cancer, as well as cosmetic damage from ultraviolet light such as brown spots, wrinkles, and broken blood vessels," board-certified dermatologist

Dr Arash Akhavan told Byrdie.

Government Guidelines

We’ve already mentioned above it’s best to look for sunscreens labelled as ‘broad-spectrum’. Standards and requirements are different depending on where you are in the world. On most packaging your see SPF50+, UVA/UVB, Broad Spectrum (or PA++++).

Let’s break this down.

Guidelines, classifications, and standards

  • In the USA, the FDA classifies sunscreen as a drug and therefore it’s a mandatory requirement to label the product as SPF.

  • Europe classifies sunscreen as cosmetic and therefore simply stating SPF on the product is not mandatory, it’s just for information.

UVA filters

“Accounts for 95% of the radiation that reaches the earth’s surface. This type of radiation can penetrate the skin deeper than UVB and due to its longer wavelength can pass through clouds and glass. It has skin cancer-causing potential and also results in premature skin ageing and pigmentation.”

  • The USA only need to prove three UVA filters by FDA standards.

  • European manufacturers are allowed to use seven proven UVA filters - meaning that technically a European product has the potential to be more effective than an American-made product.

UVB light (only relevant to the SPF number)

  • According to the britishskinfoundation.org.uk

“These rays cause skin burning and reddening. They do not penetrate the skin as deeply however the majority of skin cancers are due to UVB.”

  • There are three main ways to evaluate how long the sun's UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen.

  • PPD – Persistent Pigment Darkening – however, this is considered outdated and not allowed to make a broad spectrum claim in the USA

  • PA++ system – developed in the Far East is widely used but is also not allowed to make a broad spectrum claim in the USA

  • Critical Wavelength vitro test – considered the gold standard of testing, and all brands should be able to show to claim Broad Spectrum on their packaging in the US and the UK.

  • Critical Wavelength tests measure the absorbance of UV light on the skin and a critical wavelength of 370nm is what you are looking for in literature.


UVA rays cannot be felt and represent 95% of UV rays on the earth’s surface, playing a significant role in accelerating premature ageing. This is why it’s important to choose a sunscreen that has UVA protection.

It is essential to protect against both types of ultraviolet rays. Over time, a lack of protection can lead to deterioration in the skin cells, irreversibly damaging the DNA, and potentially leading to the development of skin cancer.

‘Natural’ vs ‘Chemical’

There are typically two types of sunscreens, ‘Natural’ (or most known as Physical) and ‘Chemical’ (also known as organic or synthetic). On the face of it, one sounds better than the other – natural MUST be better for my skin and the environment right! Your preference to either is completely individual, how does it feel on my skin, does it leave a white residue, is it OK under makeup-, does it give me spots, does it irritate my skin and so on.

To help you choose, we’ve laid out some facts on both camps:


  • Protects by sitting on the surface of the skin, reflecting UV light.

  • Contains Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

  • Often, products that contain Zinc and titanium use nanotechnology, which is under question by cancer research bodies because of its possible links to cancers in humans.


  • Usually thicker and whiter than a chemical sunscreen formula, therefore easy to see where it’s been applied and when it’s been rubbed off.

  • Can be less irritating for sensitive skin than certain chemical filters.


  • Heavier and thicker on the skin – might not be the best choice for oily or acne-prone skins.

  • More likely to leave a white/grey cast on black and coloured skin.

  • Mineral actives alone often offer less protection from damaging UVA radiation than chemical filters.


  • Protects by actively absorbing UV light.

  • They contain one or more of the following active ingredients, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.


  • Able to provide highly effective protection without necessarily needing to be in high concentrations – they are therefore lightweight and non-sticky.

  • Tends to spread easily on the skin without leaving a white residue.

  • Compound formulas with multiple filters can be used to ensure the most effective broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays.


  • Some chemical UV filters have been known to cause allergic reactions and irritation in sensitive skin.

  • There are some concerns about potential free radical damage from long-term use – look for formulas that contain antioxidants to safeguard your skin’s health.

Environment Impact

Whether you’re in the natural or chemical camp, both have some sort of impact on the environment and delicate marine life. It’s fair to say, there needs to be more studies on this subject. In the meantime, there is no argument to avoid using sunscreen altogether.

Chemical sunscreen

  • Notably, chemicals oxybenzone, Octocrylene, and octinoxate have been in the spotlight for causing environmental damage. Professor Corinaldesi told Vouge “We [have] demonstrated that oxybenzone, octinoxate and enzacamene caused complete coral bleaching even at very low concentrations,”

Natural sunscreen

  • Some studies have shown Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are toxic for fish/sea life, with an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers’ bodies annually with the potential to cause damage to fragile ecosystems.

  • Professor Corinaldesi told Vogue “Our studies indicate that zinc oxide nanoparticles are very harmful to marine organisms”


  • SPF is ALWAYS the last product to be applied to your skin.

  • Apply your SPF 15-20 minutes before you go into the sun.

  • Apply 2mg per Square CM which equates approximately to one teaspoon for your face and neck, two per chest, two per back, two per arm, two/three per leg depending on your height obviously

  • Reapply every 90 minutes to 2 hours or more often if in water.

  • If you have children, the best advice from dermatologists is to cover them up and keep them out of direct sunlight as often as possible.

  • When asked by Caroline Hirons which type of sunscreen would he use on his child, Dr Marko Lens replied: “I would probably put a chemical sunscreen on my child. I would not feel comfortable using nano-technology on my child.”

Top Tips:

  • Apply your SPF 15-20 minutes before you go into the sun.

  • Focus on the words ‘Broad Spectrum’ and less on five star/round UVA symbol when choosing your sunscreen.

  • Use SPF30 as a minimum, SPF50 is preferable.

  • Be aware of any brands labelling their product ‘waterproof’. This isn’t allowed anymore.

  • Always buy fresh every year - SPF in the bottle degrades in the sun and heat.

  • If in doubt, buy SPF aimed at kids, from doctor/dermatologist brands.

  • Make sure to thoroughly shake the spray bottle before applying.

  • Use a separate SPF after your face & body moisturiser (do not use a body sunscreen on your face)

  • Combining various levels of SPF does not mean they will accumulate. You’re only protected up to the highest number that you’re using.

  • If outdoors, reapply every 2 hours.


Wearing sunscreen daily is more important now than it has even been. Between our degrading ozone layer letting in more UV light and environmental stressors, pollution, blue light, our skin is under constant attack.

Don’t get drawn into the natural vs chemical debate and which one is better, instead focus on finding a broad-spectrum sunscreen that works for you, your skin, and that you love. Just make sure it’s SPF 30 or higher.


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