Here's Why A Higher SPF Isn't Always Better

What everyone gets wrong about sunscreen.
You would never apply sunscreen like this, would you?
Marko Misic via Getty Images
You would never apply sunscreen like this, would you?

In a video published to The Atlantic Monday, medical doctor and all-around funny guy James Hamblin explains one of the biggest psychological missteps people make when they apply high-SPF sunscreen.

“When you wear SPF 100, you’re more likely to think you’re invincible, and you never need to reapply it, and you never need to go in the shade, and you can stay out all day,” Hamblin said, as he squeezed sunscreen all over the table in front of him. “Where as when you just put SPF 30 on, you’re more likely to say, ‘Hey, I should still play it safe in the sun. I’m not invincible. In fact, I should reapply.’”

A false sense of sun safety is an easy way to get unintended sun exposure and a nasty burn, as Hamblin points out.

But there’s also quite a bit of confusion about what SPF means in the first place. For example, despite what many people believe to be true, SPF 30 is not twice as effective as 15. Instead, SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of the sun’s rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

That’s right, there’s just a 4 percent difference between the two.

Of course, those numbers rest on the assumption that the sunscreens in question live up to their SPF claims, which unfortunately, isn’t always the case. According to a Consumer Reports analysis of four years of sunscreen testing data, only 26 percent of natural sunscreens, and 58 percent of chemical sunscreens lived up to their SPF claims.

Clearly there’s a lot of misinformation flying around. But you’re not falling for any of it, are you?

For instance, did you know that it’s illegal for sunscreen manufacturers to claim that their product is waterproof? That’s because there’s no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. It’s also the reason you should always reapply once you leave the water, or if you’ve been sweating.

Another bogus claim: lotions work better than sprays. This one’s a little tricky. When used correctly, sprays, lotions and oils all work equally well. On the other hand, people tend to miss spots when using sprays, so it’s a good idea to spray on two coats or to rely on a formula that you know how to apply correctly.

So what should you look for when buying sunscreen?

For starters, dermatologists say you should pick out a product labeled “broad spectrum,” which means it protects against both UVA rays, which can cause wrinkles and sunspots, and UVB rays, which burn your skin. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer over time.

Your sunscreen should also have an SPF of 30 or greater and should be water-resistant for 40 or 80 minutes of activity (again, reapply once you leave the water).

Whatever you select, make sure you use it every day, no exceptions.

“Find a sunscreen that you actually like putting on your skin,” Dr. Janellen Smith, a dermatologist at UC Irvine Health, previously told The Huffington Post. “There is nothing worse than a bottle of sunscreen sitting on your shelf that makes you cringe every time you think of putting it on.”

While we’re at it, you should be wary of “natural” sunscreens, which most people use improperly, opening them up to even more sun damage. Homemade sunscreens, which haven’t been tested for sun protection efficacy at all, are an even riskier proposition.

“It is quite clear now that sunscreens play a major role in protecting people from the ravages of skin cancer,” Smith cautioned. “Even if you chose to avoid certain ingredients, there is a sunscreen for you out there, so use it.”

And of course, sunscreen is just one of the many ways you should be protecting your skin from damage. For optimum protection, you should also:

  • Actively stay out of the sun during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Seek shade when possible.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing.
  • Protect easily forgotten areas (scalp, ears, eyelids, lips and tops of feet).
  • Visit a board-certified dermatologist for yearly skin checkups.
  • Never, ever go near a tanning bed.
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Before You Go

Sunscreen Guide 2016