Do Higher SPF Products Offer More Protection?

It's true that most people think that higher SPF sunscreens offer more sun protection, but this assumption isn't entirely true!

Do higher SPF sunscreens protect us better against skin cancer?

The answer to the question, “Does a sunscreen with high SPF protect the skin better than the one with a low SPF” is not as straightforward as you may think. In fact, it is somewhat complicated. Nowadays, we are aware of the damaging effects of UV rays from the sun, and also know how to protect our skin. So, let’s begin by understanding UV rays and what SPF does first.

What are UV rays?

UV rays from the sun are not visible to human eyes as they have shorter wavelengths than visible light. As far as the UV spectrum is concerned, there are two types of rays: UVA and UVB. They can both cause DNA damage in the skin and result in skin cancer. Therefore, protecting the skin from both is important.

The value of broad-spectrum sunscreen

UVB rays lead to sunburns and have a pivotal role in skin cancer development. Any SPF value of sunscreen indicates the amount of UVB protection that the sunscreen can offer. UVA rays are mainly responsible for skin tanning, skin aging, and wrinkles. Hence, it is important to opt for a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen that offers protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.

What does the SPF value on sunscreen indicate?

The SPF value on a sunscreen bottle signifies how much extra time it will take for the sun’s UV rays to redden your skin when you use the sunscreen as directed, over and above the time taken by the UV rays to redden your skin without any sunscreen. This means an SPF 30 sunscreen will take 30 times longer to redden to your skin than without sunscreen. An SPF 30 product allows only 3% of UVB rays to reach the skin. Likewise, sunscreen with SPF 50 allows approximately 2% of UVB rays to reach your skin. This difference may appear quite small, but technically, SPF 30 allows almost 50% more UV radiation than SPF 50 to reach the skin.

Why higher SPF products may not provide more protection

Under ideal conditions, broad-spectrum sunscreens with higher SPF values give more protection against both UVA and UVB than similar products with lower SPF values. However, in the real world, high SPF sunscreens usually create a false sense of safety. People using them tend to stay longer in the sun and may even miss reapplying it. These people often believe that they don’t need to take additional precautions like wearing hats or UV-blocking sunglasses and covering up their body with suitable clothing. So eventually, they end up causing more damage to their skin, which defeats the main purpose of applying sunscreen.

Do higher SPF products work for anyone?

It is worth noting that SPF 50 products may not be sufficient for people with a history of cancer or high-risk, genetic disorders like xeroderma pigmentosum and albinism, or specific immune disorders. The same holds true for those who ski or hike at very high altitudes or vacation near the equator.

Overpromising sun safety

High SPF sunscreen products not only overpromise sun safety, but they may also overexpose users to UVA rays while raising their risk of developing cancer. People often use high SPF products improperly, which causes them to overexpose themselves to the damaging UV radiation from the sun. Moreover, the concentration of sun-filtering chemicals that blocks UV rays are higher in high SPF products. Some of these ingredients are known to pose health risks once they get into the skin, such as tissue damage, hormonal problems, and skin allergies.

Extra chemical exposure

The extra chemical exposure would only be justified only if the higher SPF products would be much more effective at lowering skin damage and risk of skin cancer. However, studies have shown that in reality, higher SPF sunscreens are only marginally better at offering UV protection. Therefore, using sunscreens with lower levels of sun-blocking ingredients – for example, SPF 30-40 instead of SPF 70, is a prudent choice.

A broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or above is what most skin cancer physicians and dermatologists suggest for extended outdoor activities. Sunscreen should be applied half an hour before heading outside and it must be reapplied every 2 hours or instantly after sweating or swimming.

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