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Sunscreen and SPF: Everything you need to know about sun protection, including the best type for your skin

Don’t know your UVB from your UVA rays? We've got the answers to all your burning questions

Tamara Corin,Sarah Young
Monday 21 March 2022 15:18
<p>We’ve gathered expert advice on every type of formula, from facial creams to baby-friendly protection</p>

We’ve gathered expert advice on every type of formula, from facial creams to baby-friendly protection

Whether you’re applying sunscreen for a windy walk, an afternoon dip in a paddling pool or while sat on an idyllic sandy beach, it is still an absolute necessity to protect your skin from harmful rays.

However, it’s a burning topic (see what we did there) that is often overwhelming and confusing.

Tohelp youdecipher all of the jargon surrounding suncare, we’ve asked the experts to break it down and help us navigate the mass of products available in order to help you make informed choices about which protection is best.

And remember, while the skin is at its most vulnerable during the impending summer months, the risk of skin damage is a year-round concern, so you’ll want to keep this page bookmarked come winter, too.

From the difference between UVA and UVB rays to shelf life and how to find the right formula for you or your children, consider this your homeschooling guide to sensible sun protection for the whole family.

Read more:

What are UVA and UVB rays?

The sunlight that reaches us is made up of two types of harmful rays: long-wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short-wave ultraviolet B (UVB).

UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis, the skin’s thickest layer. Unprotected exposure can lead to premature skin ageing and wrinkling (photoageing), and the suppression of the immune system.

UVB rays will usually burn the superficial layers of your skin too – the epidermis (top layer) and the dermis (the thick tough layer that lies underneath).

According to Kristine Guanzon, education marketing manager for suncare brand Coola, UVB light plays a “key role in the development of skin cancer”. “The intensity of UVB rays vary by season, location and time of day, with 10am to 4pm being the peak hours,” she says. “Sunburnt skin doesn’t just feel awful, it can cause permanent damage over time”, adding that it's important to look for a sunscreen that protects against both types of rays.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. Sunscreens are classified by an SPF number which refers to their ability to deflect UVB rays.

The SPF rating is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to burn sunscreen-protected skin versus unprotected skin. It is rated on a scale from twoto 50+. The higher the SPF number, the stronger the protection you'll have.

How do star ratings work?

Protection from UVA rays is measured by a star rating that can be found on sunscreen bottles. These ratings range from zero to five stars – the more stars, the better the protection.

According to the British Association of Dermatologists, a sunscreen with a rating of four or five stars is generally considered to provide a good standard of sun protection, as long as it is paired with time in the shade and suitable clothing.

Read more: 11 best sunscreens for your body: Lotions, sprays and creams

You may also notice “UVA” written in a circle on sunscreen bottles. This is a European marking and means the UVA protection is at least one third of the SPF value, therefore indicating that it meets the EU standard.

Sunscreen that protects you against both UVA and UVB rays can sometimes be called “broad spectrum”, although there isn’t a consistent standard of UVA protection associated with this phrase (unlike with the European marking).

How much sunscreen should you apply?

The answer varies from person to person depending on your size and skin type. However, as a ballpark estimate, Dr Reto Peirano, the laboratory manager for Nivea Sun, says: “You would needtwo to three tablespoons of sunscreen to sufficiently cover your body and another two tablespoons for your face.”

"Interestingly, most of us have a self-protection time of between five and 40 minutes, but you shouldn’t rely on this to avoid burning,” he adds.

Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen every two hours to maintain protection.

If you’re on the hunt for a new formula, Ultrasun’s family SPF30 (£20, Superdrug.com) won the top spot in our guide to the best suncreens for your body, with our tester praising it for its “perfect gel texture (neither too sloppy nor too thick) and ease of application”. They also added how much they “liked the environmentally-friendly way the instructions are printed on the inside of the box and loved the diagram showing how many fingers of sunscreen for each body part – so simple and easy to remember.”

Alternatively, those with sensitive skin should consider picking up La Roche-Posay’s anthelios ultra-light invisible fluid SPF50+ (£17.99, Superdrug.com), which was chosen as the best formula in our guide to the best sunscreens for sensitive skin.“The thin, milky fluid is lovely for anyone who experiences prickly heat in the sun or finds that thicker creams exacerbate heat rashes,” our tester said.

What are the different types of sunscreen?

Water-resistant sunscreen

“Contrary to belief, water-resistant doesn’t mean waterproof,” says Abi Cleeve, managing director at Ultrasun. “No sun protection product is waterproof. Water-resistance means they are tested to ensure up to 40 minutes of resistance underwater.”

Water-resistant formulas are tailored for prolonged water immersion, such as when swimming, or when perspiring, such as while playing outdoor sports.

If you’re planning on taking a dip in the ocean while wearing your SPF this summer, you might want to consider a “reef-safe” option, as these formulas are less damaging to aquatic life.

In our guide to the best reef-safe sunscreens, Nivea’s protect and moisture sunscreen spray SPF30, 200ml (£5.99, Superdrug.com) was highlighted as the best one for easy application as it has a spray bottle that means it’s suitable for even the laziest of appliers. “Offering UVA and UVB protection, the brand’s protect and moisturise SPF30 spray is one of those simple products that’ll suit even the fussiest of family members,” our tester said. “Simply squirt the lotion onto the body, or the palm of your hand, and rub in. Nivea claims that the formula also works in balance with the skin’s biome.”

Sunscreen with insect repellent

Suncream with insect repellent may sound like a handy double whammy, but NHS Fit for Travel recommends using suncream separately to insect repellent. In general, repellants should be applied after sunscreen, and you should be aware that the “SPF protection of your sunscreen may be reduced”.

Read more: Charlotte Tilbury has launched its first ever SPF – we put it to the test

Sunscreens for babies and children

Rather than just using the same bottle of suncream for the entire family, it is worth investing in suncare specifically made for children as it is formulated to protect their delicate skin and to minimise the risk of allergic reactions.

Raj Sandhan, expert advisor from Mustela, one of the leading skincare brands for babies and young children, explains: “Babies’ skin is significantly thinner than adults. From 0-2 years, the skin is at a critical stage of development. Babies have an immature skin barrier function and therefore it requires extra care."

Sandhan suggests looking for SPF50+ anti UVA and UVB protection, with a highly water-resistant formula to completely protect the skin. “It should be suitable for sensitive skin, including atopic prone skin, and should not contain parabens,” he adds.

La Roche-Posay’s anthelios dermo-kids invisible mist SPF50+ (£22, Laroche-posay.co.uk) was the top recommended choice for little ones in our round-up of the best sunscreen for kids, with our reviewer saying it’s a great option for older children “due to its high sweat, water and sand resistant formula that’s also suitable for very sensitive skin”. If you’re looking for a formula that’s best suited to babies, Green People’s organic children scent free sun cream SPF30 (£21.50, Greenpeople.co.uk) won the top spot in our guide to the best baby sunscreens. Our tester noted that the fragrance-free formula “absorbs in a flash with no greasy or sticky leftovers – ideal for wriggly babies”.

What is the average shelf life of sunscreen?

Most sunscreens have a shelf life of two years. But to be cautious, it’s best to chuck out unfinished sunscreen than wait for your annual holiday to come around again to finish the bottle.

Read more: 9 best eco-friendly sunscreens that are helping to protect our oceans

If any old products look grainy, watery or discoloured, or if the odour has changed, that’s your cue to discard it. The expiration dates can usually be found on the bottom of the bottles.

What type of sunscreen is best for your face?

Facial skin is thinner and more vulnerable than skin on the body, so it’s worth investing in suncare that is specific to the face (even if your foundation or moisturiser contains an SPF, you need a separate suncare product).

Nivea’s Dr Reto Peirano suggests choosing products that are “lightweight, protect against skin ageing (via UVA/UVB protection) and offer an eye-friendly formula and is ophthalmologically tested (meaning the products have been certified safe to use around the delicate eye area), especially if you regularly wear contact lenses”.

While La Roche-Posay’s anthelios UVMUNE400 invisible fluid SPF 50 (£18, Lookfantastic.com) was chosen as the best overall option in our guide to the best facial sunscreens, those looking for a formula that gives best results when worn under make-up should look to Mac Cosmetics’ prep + prime face protect lotion SPF50 (£26, Selfridges.com). Our tester said it “absorbs into skin straight away and feels nourishing and comfortable without being heavy, greasy or oily”.

Can you put sunscreen on a spray tan?

Dr Peirano reminds us that spray tans do not increase the skin’s protection against sun damage. “Regardless of whether you’re wearing self-tan or not, it is always recommended to practice safe sun behaviour by seeking shade, covering up, and applying suncream (no matter what your skin tone),” he says.

Read more: 14 best fake tans for a golden glow all year round

If you tend to use a self-tan before going on holiday, then consider your suncare an extra boost. Most suncare is highly moisturising and the more hydrated your skin, the better your fake tan will look.

Voucher codes

For the latest discounts on sunscreen and other skincare offers, try the links below:

To soothe and repair sun-damaged skin, read our edit of the best aftersun lotions, creams and balms

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