Sunscreens and Mega SPF’s — Are They Just Another Marketing Ploy?
Have you noticed recently how the standard SPF's ranging from 15-30 have now catapulted into the stratosphere? I could not help but notice recently how many companies have jumped on the "more is better," band wagon by offering sun blocks and sunscreens with SPF's as high as 100. Do these higher SPF's really give us better protection, or are they just a marketing ploy to get us to buy more products?
Brands such as Neutrogena and Coppertone are now offering SPF's in the range of 50-100 in addition to the standard offerings such as an SPF 15-30.
The question is, "Are super high SPF's actually giving us more protection, or are they just a marketing ploy?" First, I would like to briefly discuss what the term SPF means and to distinguish the difference between "physical" and "chemical" sunscreens and or sun blocks.
SPF refers to sun protection factor. It basically determines how long you can stay in the sun without burning. It is primarily based on the idea that if a person normally burns (without sun screen) after 15 minutes, then an SPF 15 sunscreen would give you 225 minutes of protection (15 X 15). However, since many consumers actually only apply a fraction of the amount that was used in the "testing" environment (approximately 1/3), in reality an SPF 15 sunscreen may only translate into an SPF 5. SPF calculations are only approximate because they don't take into account other situations such as time of day (the sun is strongest between 10:00AM and 4:00PM).
Sun blocks also known as physical sunscreens, most typically contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide which physically block ultraviolet radiation (UVR). These products are considered to be broad spectrum and protect against both ultra violet (UVA) rays, and ultra violet B or burning rays. Sun blocks work by deflecting the sun off of your skin, while "chemical" sunscreens reduce or minimize the amount of ultra violet radiation that is absorbed by your skin (to varying degrees). While in the process of review, the FDA has not yet determined an SPF rating system for UVA rays. However, in their most recent monograph, they recommend limiting SPF's to 50.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, both UVB and UVA can both cause skin cancer. In fact, it was once thought that only UVB rays could cause cancer, but research now shows that this is not the case. UVA rays (long wave rays) are more prevalent and account for approximately 95% of the UVA rays reaching the earth's surface. UVA rays can cause both cellular and DNA damage and are responsible for premature aging such as deep lines and wrinkles.
If you ask some dermatologists they will tell you that while higher SPF's such as 50+ may offer some type of safety margin (primarily because most people do not apply enough product), they also have some significant drawbacks.
Some experts such as Steven Wang, M.D., at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC, believe that high SPF's such as SPF 50-100 may give the wrong message about appropriate sun protection strategies. While many may believe that a sun block may be the first line of defense, according to most public health organizations, the first step would be avoiding the sun, seeking shade, wearing protective clothing such as hats, and then using an effective sunscreen or sun block. Relying solely on a sunscreen with a high SPF can lead to a false sense of security; people may think they can stay out in the sun for long periods of time without burning.
Another drawback of high SPF's is that they may result in uneven protection providing high UVB, but inadequate UVA protection. The European Commission recommends that all sun block or sunscreen products have a UVA/UVB protection ratio of 1:3. According to many experts, the best UVA protection offered in a "chemical" sunscreen is Avobenzone, but it must be stabilized with other "actives" such as Octrocrylene.
Dr. Wang also believes that U.S. companies still don't have the "active" ingredients (those that offer sun protection) necessary for sunscreens at very high SPF levels. Tinosorb, which boosts UVA protection, is still not approved by the FDA.
Another concern is that super high SPF's may discourage companies from looking at alternative ways of improving sun protection, such as developing strategies for better distribution of protection from both UVA and UVB and enhanced photosensitivity.
So, what should you do when purchasing a sun block or sunscreen? Based on the evidence, it appears that purchasing a product between SPF 15-50 would be more than adequate.
An SPF 15-25 should be more than sufficient for everyday activities such as walking around town and driving back and forth to work (UVA rays can penetrate though glass). If you are spending more time outdoors, such as a picnic, then you may want to choose a somewhat higher SPF in the range of 30-45. Sun block / sunscreens should be worn daily, even on a cloudy day, as 80% of the sun's ultraviolet rays can pass through clouds. You may also want to boost your intake of Vitamin D as sun block can interfere with your body's ability to absorb vitamin D from the sun. You can have your blood levels checked by your physician.
Dr. Teri Dourmashkin received her Doctorate in Health Education from Columbia University. She is the Founder and President of La Vie Celeste Skin Care Inc. La Vie Celeste brings you all natural anti-aging skincare featuring R-Lipoic Acid, a powerful antioxidant. Suitable for all skin types, La Vie Celeste is the perfect union of science and nature. To learn more visit La Vie Celeste Skin Care.