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The Trouble With SPF 50 – Part 1

August 10, 2011

Australia, the great southern land of azure blue skies, sparkling white sand, dusty outback plains and  cute looking marsupials.  Everything here is rosy, even the Lilly white (imported)  people (of which I am one) and that’s usually because of the overly  generous dollop of UV radiation we are treated to each day.

Sunscreen is a must for us white fellas living in el-scorchio and in the world of sunscreens it is generally assumed that the higher the SPF the better the protection and that would be right, up to a point.

On the weekend the Australian newspapers ran an article outlining the changes coming in the world of sunscreens. Apparently (and this has been on the cards for at least 5 years, probably much longer) we are soon to see SPF 50 sunscreens on our shelves.   Wonderful!  Only it may not be that great.   Currently sunscreens can only be marketed up to SPF 30 plus no matter how high their actual protection.  The decision to limit SPF claims to 30 plus was based on a number of factors including the likelihood that people would ‘place undue faith’ onto products offering higher SPF  and therefore adopt less sun-safe behaviour than would otherwise be expected.   Another factor in the sticking to SPF 30 plus is because the higher the claimed SPF the more difficult it is to run accurate testing and so as the margin for error increases so do the problems for people selling and using the product.

All sunscreens let some sun through – it is really, really tricky to block everything out even  (or sometimes especially) with clothing.  The SPF gives you some useful information about how much sun is being filtered and how much is getting through. In laymen terms we think of the SPF as the amount of extra time we can spend in the sun without burning although this is not necessarily useful as we will find out in a tiny moment.

So what is the trouble with SPF 50 then?

  • Sunscreens are filters and their filtering capacity relates to time.  You can still burn with ANY SPF sunscreen on once you reach your MED (minimal erythema dose) and for white people in Australia that can be as little as a few minutes.
  • Sunscreens wear off.  It pays to remember that sunscreens are applied to the skin and that skin changes its shape,  humidity, temperature and internal metabolism constantly.  All of this means that to remain effective sunscreens need frequent re-application.
  • Sunscreens need to be applied BEFORE you go out into the sun. If you skin has already had its MED no amount of sunscreen is going to stop sun burn (as per point above). Once your skin has ‘cooked’ it’s cooked.
  • Sunscreens need to be applied quite thickly (2cm of product per cm2 of skin)  to reach their maximum SPF. The reality is that almost nobody does this. This is probably the main cause of the ‘my sunscreen let me down’ burn.  SPF 50 may make this worse especially for people wanting Zinc or Titanium only sunscreens as to offer SPF 50 they would end up being quite thick and unpleasant to use.
  • SPF 50 sunscreens would be more expensive.  Yes sunscreens do already exist that have higher SPF’s than advertised but these are usually the more expensive pharmaceutical store brands rather than the supermarket own. If sunscreens increase too much in price some people will stop being able to afford them.
  • As mentioned before testing for SPF 50 or over is more difficult leading to more diverse results leading to the need for larger trials at a higher cost. This would be prohibitive to many smaller brands and could lead to less competition.
  • The leap-of-faith failure that happens at SPF 30 would be even more of a problem at SPF 50.  No SPF level can make up for a lack of personal responsibility and safe-sun ownership.  Education is what is required.

In summary the move to SPF 50 plus may sound a darn sight better than it turns out to be.  There is a limit to how long any product can sit and stay protective on the complex organism that is human skin and so the bigger-is-better argument does have limits.  As long as we do our bit and engage our brains the move need not cause us physical pain but as to whether it ends up hurting our back pocket only time will tell.

Enjoy the sun safely and if you need more info  on how sunscreens work read this.

Full disclosure:  We do know Gavin Greenoak, John Stanton, the team at ACCORD and representatives from the Cancer Council and Standards Australia.

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