Sun Protection: SPF level, types and is it harmful?

Let’s finish our »sun protection« saga with a word about levels of protection, sunscreen types and a very important question – can sunscreen be harmful? If you missed my previous post, about why and when you should use sun protection and how much, you can find it here: click.

SPF level?

First, you’ll have to know more about the sun protection factor, what it even means that a product has a SPF 30?

Your skin has some natural protection against sunburn that lasts (in average) 10 minutes. A SPF tells us for how much time we can extend our natural protection by applying a SPF product. In the case of SPF 30 the answer is 30 times longer than our natural protection – 30X10 minutes, which would amount in 300 minutes. You could say, that you’re on the safe side for 5 hours if you applied the suitable amount of the sunscreen product but this is rather optimistic, since reapplications are necessary due to sweating, wiping, absorbtion, etc.

But even if you do everything by the book, there is also the fact that nothing blocks 100% of UV rays so to be as safe as possible and to compensate the common shortcomings (amount, sweat, absorption, etc.), opt out for the highest SPF (50) whenever possible, if not, go for at least 30.

Keep in mind that layering different products with sunscreen doesn’t increase your basic SPF. If you have a SPF mosturizer with SPF 30 and a BB cream with SPF 30 you are not wearing a SPF 60. The protection is never higher than the higest SPF applied and depends solely on the applied quantity and reapplications. If you applied a pea size of both, your protection could be actually only around 10-15 SPF and reduced to nonexistent after a few hours. Nevertheless, if you have two layers of a sunscreen product, that sums up to a bigger amount which means better protection due to quantity.

Did you notice I didn’t mention UVA protection so far?

SPF primarily shows the level of protection against UVB rays that cause sunburn, not UVA. When SPF was developed there wasn’t any UVA awareness and we basically still don’t have a global standard for UVA protection, so you need to be looking for products that offer broad spectrum protection and contain ingredients that provide UVA screening. This is usually written on products (UVA sign in a circle, broad spectrum, UVA/UVB protection etc.) and the protection against UVA should be close to the stated SPF of the product (if not stated differently). Should. Because as mentioned, there is no global standard and it can be quite unclear how much UVA screening a specific product offers. However, there are some methods in use that can help you orientate about the level of UVA protection of a specific product that are well explained in this article on the Klog: click.

Just don’t forget, UVA is the real villain here, so make sure you choose a trusthworthy product that has a broad spectrum protection against both types, not just UVB.

And then there is also the important question about the type of screen you choose. We know physical (mineral) and chemical – so let’s get into this big black hole.

Physical or chemical?

Yeah, that is a headache question, because there’s no straight answer. Let’s just begin with what is what. »Physical« sunscreens are natural compounds and there are only two – Zinc Oxide and Titanum Dioxide. »Chemical« sunscreens are man-made compounds and there are many, among of the most used are Octocrylene, Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, etc.

Which is better for you? It depends on your skin concerns and preferences.

While I’m all for physical for obvious reasons – sensitive skin and allergy to chemical filters, I’m still prone to recommend mineral sunscreen in general. I’ve put together a pros and cons list for both types, and under the line, I’d still choose minerals, let me elaborate why:

The list looks almost balanced in pluses and minuses, so why I’d still choose physical?

Physical sunscreen in recommended mostly for sensitive skin, but even if you’re not on the sensitive side, you might experience stinging and discomfort with certain types of chemical filters.  Discomfort can affect your skin and your eyes.

The potential link between chemical sunscreen and hyperpigmentation worsening might just be real.  While it is not a proven fact, there are plenty of rumors and experiences that point in this direction. Better safe than sorry could be a real option here! But I shall tell the whole story – there is also the possibility that this is due to the texture of chemical sunscreen products which is usually lighter and somehow offers less physical coverage. While this is quite nice in terms of elegant application and aesthetic result it might represent also a significant flaw, because it can lead to sloppy and uneven application. A light formula is also easier to wipe off or sweat off (if it is not waterproof) which results in a significantly diminished protection against UV rays and subsequently causes more unexpected UV skin damage. With physical filters that are thicker, clingier and usually leave at least a subtle white cast it is harder to miss a spot or to wipe it off.

And here we go with the biggest con of physicals. Heavier textures and white cast. These are simply Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide features and are hard to avoid. At least manufacturers fiercely compete in this field so we are constantly getting new and better formulations, but still, finding an elegant and light physical sunscreen that doesn’t clog pores is a mission! Most also contain silicons because it enable smoother application, and while they are unduly demonized they might cause problems on some skin types.

It is a big con all right, but still. Irritation and the hyperpigmentation part are a  huge deal breaker for me and I didn’t even start talking about the possible harmful effects chemical filters can have. So let’s move to that part.

Is sunscreen harmful?

It depends. Maybe the first question would be for whom is harmful?

We are not alone in this world so this is an important question. And if we’re talking about the environment and marine life specifically the answer is yes. Sunscreen can harm marine life severely! Be mindful which sunscreen you choose for your splashy holidays, because most chemical filters and some physical filters are nasty. Avoid physical filters with nano particles (there is still some controversy around that but to be on the safe side, just don’t) and any chemical filters for which is not specifically stated that are safe for the marine life. Don’t worry there are pretty nice options out there, just do you homework.

My fav body sunscreen: Biobaza Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, without nano particles and pretty nice for use!

If we are talking about personal use the answer is not black and white. There are studies that confirm that chemical filters enter the bloodstream, which is not to be taken lightly, but it is also not something to panic about and ditch all sunscreens. We need to use our common sense again, because this studies were made with very substantial applications of sunscreen on the whole body surface with high frequency. These are not really realistic life circumstances, so we should be on the safe side as long as we pick the lesser evil and find balance. Minimize the application surface and cover yourself up, use other forms of protection (clothing, hats, shades) whenever possible, use physical sunscreen and you will do OK. But even if you use chemical suncreens during those 2 weeks of vacation and daily on that little surface of your pretty face, you shall survive, I promise.

Nevertheless, consider getting physical. As said, each year there are better formulations, just put some effort and give it a try, do some research. In the end it is still the safer option! I will come back with some suggestions and reviews soon. Stay Tuned.


Ciao, Tika

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