Your sun protection guide: SPF, UVB and UVA explained

People are confused by the jargon on suncream bottles [Photo: Getty]

When it comes to protecting our skin from sunburn we know we should be slapping on the suncream.

But, though we like to think we’re SPF aware, many of us getting confused by the jargon on our sun protection labels.

Recent stats by Superdrug revealed that six out of 10 people polled said they were unaware that the SPF, Sun Protection Factor, rating displayed on labels does not alone guarantee protection from potential sun damage.

The poll, of 2,000 UK adults, also found that nearly half (44%) of consumers admitted they don’t know what SPF means while one in 10 incorrectly thought the SPF number equates to the minutes they could stay in the sun safely.

But with so many different terms to wade through - UVA, UVB, Broad-spectrum protection - it isn’t surprising we’re getting so baffled.

And with the skin cancer risk ever present, we really need to understand how to protect our skin this summer.

Thankfully we spoke to the sun care experts to cut through the jargon so you don’t have to.

What is SPF?

“SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of how well your sunscreen will protect your skin against UVB rays,” explains Jennie Rickards, clinics manager at The New York Laser Clinic.

According to the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) SPFs are rated on a scale of 2-50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with ratings between 2 to 14 forming the least protected end of the spectrum and ratings of 50+ offering the strongest forms of UVB protection.

“There is a lot of confusion of what the numbers mean on an SPF and which protection factor should be used,” Rickards explains.

“The key thing to remember is that on average it takes 10 minutes for your skin, if unprotected, to show signs of burning. Therefore by applying an SPF 30 it will protect it 30x longer, so for 300 minutes.

In other words, the higher the SPF the greater the protection of your sunscreen

But as the BAD points out we need to keep in mind that these figures are just theoretical and in real life, the amount of time you can spend in the sun will also be impacted by other factors including your skin type and the local UV intensity.

READ MORE: Does using shaving cream to treat sunburn actually work?

Your must-know guide to sun protection this summer [Photo: Getty]

What’s the difference between UVB and UVA?

“UVB is the main cause of reddening and burning of the epidermis, the skin’s outer most layer,” explains Rickards.

”UVB is superficial and causes the skin to burn, UVA is photo-ageing that penetrates into the dermis layer causing lasting effects to the skin.”

According to the BAD, UVA affects the elastin in the skin and leads to wrinkles and sun-induced skin ageing (for example coarse wrinkles, leathery skin and brown pigmentation), as well as skin cancer.

Rickards says a good suncream should have a UVA star rating 0-5, this measures the absorption of UVA rays and it should be at least 4-5 start rating.

Last year a mum issued some advice to other parents to check the UV ratings on their children’s sunscreen and not just the factor.

Taking to social media the mum explained that there’s much more to sun protection than just slapping on the SPF.

Instead of just relying on the factor they are using, parents should also be looking at the star rating on the bottle which relates to its UV protection.

Be aware that if you choose a low SPF it may still have a high level of stars, not because it is providing lots of UVA protection, but because the ratio between the UVA and UVB protection is about the same.

It’s important to choose a high SPF as well as a high UVA protection (e.g. a high number of stars).

What does broad-spectrum protection mean?

According to Johnson & Johnson and Piz Buin skincare expert Rebecca Bennett if a sunscreen has broad-spectrum protection it means it has the ability to protect against the harmful effects of both UVA (ageing rays) and UVB (burning rays).

“To be classified as offering broad-spectrum protection, a sunscreen product needs to absorb or reflect at least 90% of the UV rays from the 290 to 400 nanometres (nm) wavelength range,” she adds.

What’s the difference between ‘water-resistant’ and ‘waterproof’?

It’s easy to get the two confused. After all, they basically mean the same thing, right? Er, nope.

Current UK tests allow manufacturers to claim a sunscreen is water resistant if the SPF drops by as much as 50% after two 20-minute periods of immersion.

That means if you jump into the pool with SPF30 on, it could drop to SPF15 or less when you get out.

“It's important that your sunscreen is water resistant when you go swimming because UV radiation half a metre below the surface of water is still 40% as intense as it is on the surface,” explains Bennett.

“You also need to protect the part of your body that's above the surface, as water reflects some 25% of UV radiation and can intensify the harmful effects.”

To be safe, reapply sunscreen after you get out of the pool or water.

READ MORE: Forgetting to apply SPF to eyelids could put us at risk

Harmful sun cream ingredients

While you might think all sun cream formulas are created equal, some products contain ingredients that can have detrimental impacts.

“You should watch out for harmful ingredients such as, Octisalate & Ocrtinoxate which only absorbs UVB rays and wont give you full protection,” explains Rickards.

”Your sun protection should include the ingredient Zinc Oxide as this will cover all rays and is a mineral based ingredient,” she adds.

Not all suncreams are created equal [Photo: Getty]

Tips for safe and effective sunscreen application and sun behaviour

Rebecca Bennett has put together her advice for helping us stay sun-safe this summer.

1. Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going out in the sun to allow maximum absorption and protection.

2. Make sure you're applying enough sunscreen. An insufficient quantity lowers the level of protection significantly. Pay special care to more sensitive areas, such as your ears, nose shoulders, cleavage and neck.

3. Don't neglect hard to reach and easily forgotten places, such as your ears, feet and upper back.

4. Re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours. Apply more frequently after swimming, sweating or towelling.

5. Try to avoid intense midday sun from 11:00am and 3:00pm during the summer months or when on holiday in tropical countries.

6. If you are taking medication, check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it's OK to spend time in the sun. Some medicines can make the skin more sensitive to the sun's rays.

7. Overexposure to the sun can threaten your health, so avoid staying out in the sun too long, even when using a sunscreen.

8. Protect children. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of UV radiation and often spend more time outdoors than adults. Parents should take special care to protect them from the sun using protective clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. Keep babies and young children out of direct sunlight.