Is a Higher SPF Level the Best Option in Sunscreen?

How To Choose The Right Sunscreen

Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images 

There are many misconceptions about sunscreen. You have those people who think that applying the sunscreen with the highest SPF will protect them better than a sunscreen with a lower SPF number. Then, there are those who won't use sunscreen with a high SPF because they think they won't get a tan.

Let's break down fact from fiction and get to the bottom of this sunscreen dilemma.

Facts About Sunscreen SPF

Higher SPF's aren't always necessary. You need to look at a couple of things when you are shopping for sunscreen. First, how light is your skin tone? Those with lighter skin will usually burn faster than those with darker or olive skin. If your skin starts to turn red fast when you are in the sun, you'll want a higher SPF.  But there are a lot of other factors than just your skin tone that you need to consider when deciding which SPF number you want to buy.

One of the main problems with buying sunscreen with very high SPF numbers is that you have a false sense of security about how much sun protection you are actually getting. The higher the SPF number, the less sunscreen people tend to apply and the less frequently they tend to reapply.

You can still get a sunburn, even when using a sunscreen with a high SPF number because you think you are protected from the sun but you are not.  

What Does the SPF Rating Mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. This number determines how long you can be out in the sun before you get a sunburn. For example, if you usually burn after 20 minutes in the sun if you apply a sunscreen with SPF 15 you can stay in the sun 15 times as long or about 5 hours before burning in ideal outdoor conditions.  

Perfect conditions mean that you aren't in water or sweating, two things that usually go hand in hand with being in the sun. This also doesn't reflect sunscreen that can rub off on your clothing. Real life does not always offer the best conditions for making sure sunscreen stays on like it should.  

For that reason, no matter what SPF number your sunscreen is you need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours. It doesn't matter if your sunscreen is SPF 5 or 50. After about 2 hours your sunscreen is not effective anymore.  

What SPF Number Should You Use?

People also get confused about how much sun protection SPF numbers actually give you when you are outdoors. SPF 30 does not give you twice as much protection as SPF 15. This is how it actually works: SPF 15 blocks 92% of UV rays while SPF 34 blocks 97% of UV rays.  

No sunscreen, no matter how high the number, will block 100% of the UV rays. There really is no point in using a sunscreen that is higher than SPF 50. What is most important is applying enough sunscreen and reapplying it frequently. Most Americans do not use sunscreens or apply enough.  It does not matter how high the SPF number you use if you only apply a little bit of sunscreen.  

It is best to buy a sunscreen that is between SPF 30 to 50. Make sure you have a sunscreen for your face and a different one for your body. Sunscreens that are formulated for the face feel, look, and smell different than those meant for the body.

Important Sun Safety Tips

In addition, there are a few more important sun safety tips that everyone should follow:

  • Between 10 am and 4 pm, seek shade when outdoors.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat when outdoors and cover-up with protective clothing.  
  • Use sunglasses at all times.
  • Reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming or sweating.
  • Never use tanning beds.