Applying sunscreen regularly is super important for looking after our skin while having fun in the sun. We’ve heard that a high SPF offers the best protection, but what exactly does having a ‘high SPF’ sunscreen even mean?

What is SPF & what does it do?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. It measures a sunscreen’s ability to protect your skin from the sun’s UV radiation. The sun emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that reach our skin – UVA and UVB.

UVA is associated with skin ageing and UVB is mainly responsible for sunburn. Both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer. All sunscreen products protect against UVB rays, SPF measures sunscreen protection from UVB rays. The star rating of a sunscreen measures the amount of UVA protection. You should see a star rating of up to 5 stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating, the better.

What's the difference between the different SPFs?

SPFs are rated on a scale of two to 50+ depending on the protection they offer. The number shows how long the sun’s UV rays would take to burn your skin with sunscreen, compared to the time it would without. Let’s say you usually start to burn after 10 minutes in the sun if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. An SPF 30 sunscreen, if used properly, will protect you for up to 30 times longer.

It also depends on a person’s skin type, intensity of the sunlight and amount of sunscreen used. Generally, SPF 15 is considered mild protection, 15-30 is considered moderate protection and 30+ is considered high protection. Whatever SPF you use, make sure you reapply sunscreen every two hours to help keep your skin safe.

Which SPF should I be using?

Your skin tone is important when choosing which SPF is best for you. Melanin is a natural pigment in our skin that helps to protect against sun damage. Those with more melanin will likely have darker skin, eyes and hair. The amount of melanin you make depends on your genes. Dermatologists generally divide skin types into six different categories. These range from phototype one (fair skin that burns very easily and doesn’t tan) to phototype six (darker skin that doesn’t burn easily).

Those with fair skin and hair, light-coloured eyes, freckles and moles (phototype one) are at highest risk of sunburn, photo damage and skin cancer. They should always use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 or, even better, 50. If you’re very fair, you’re at a higher risk of causing damage to your skin if it’s exposed to the sun without protection.

Thanks to having more melanin, those with a darker complexion have more natural sun protection. One of the biggest myths surrounding sunscreen is that those with darker skin don’t need to worry about protecting their skin. This is so not true. If your skin is darker, you should still use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to protect your skin. Even if darker skin doesn’t visibly burn, there’s still a risk of the skin being damaged beneath the surface, leaving it vulnerable to longer-term skin damage.

It’s possible for everyone, no matter how dark their skin colour, to burn and develop skin cancer. Take extra care to protect babies and children as their skin is much more sensitive. Always apply a high protection sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and keep babies younger than six months out of direct sunlight.

Stay safe in the sun

Whatever type of sun protection you use, no matter the SPF, keep your sunscreen topped up regularly when you’re in the sun. This includes sunscreens that are ‘once a day’ and ‘water resistant’. Be smart and don’t just rely on sunscreen alone to keep you safe when it’s hot outside. Protect your skin by wearing a hat, t-shirt and sunglasses. Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm when it’s sunny and choose a high SPF, broad spectrum protecting against UVB and UVA sunscreen, to help prevent sunburn and help protect your skin.