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SPF stands for sun protection factor and is a standardised measure for the level of protection from UVB rays (the UV rays responsible for burning the skin). The SPF rating represents both the level of protection from UVB rays and the amount of time it protects the skin from burning. SPF15 protects from 93% of UVB rays and 15 times your burn time (burn time meaning the amount of time it takes for your skin to turn red when unprotected from the sun), SPF30 protects from 97% of UVB rays and 30 times your burn time, and SPF50 protects from 98% of UVB rays and 50 times your burn time.
While SPF is not a standardised measure of protection from UVA rays, the higher the SPF rating, the more protection you will receive from UVA rays (the UV rays responsible for breaking down collagen and elastin in the skin). And no, layering SPF products does not increase the level of protection. You will receive the amount of protection provided by the highest rated product that you apply.
Cosmetic products with a SPF rating like a tinted moisturiser or a moisturiser with SPF are considered secondary sunscreens. This means they are formulated for a primary purpose other than that of sun protection (e.g. hydrating the skin). Sunscreens, on the other hand, are considered primary sunscreens. This means they are formulated for the primary purpose of sun protection. In Australia and New Zealand these products are tested, rated and regulated by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration). While secondary sunscreens do offer some protection from damaging UV rays, they are not developed to provide the same level of protection as a primary sunscreen.
Both chemical and physical sunscreens are equally effective in protecting your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Both are tested, rated and regulated by the TGA, so a chemical sunscreen that’s rated SPF50 will provide the same level of protection as a physical sunscreen that is rated SPF50. The key difference is the ingredients used to provide UV protection and how they work in the skin.
Chemical sunscreen ingredients (e.g. octinoxate or avobenzone) work by absorbing UV radiation and converting it into heat energy which is then released from the body, while physical sunscreen ingredients (e.g. titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) deflect UV radiation in order to protect the skin.
Want to know the difference between physical and mineral SPF? Find out here.
Quantity and timing are everything when applying sunscreen to ensure you experience the level of protection as promised on the label. You should apply 5ml of primary sunscreen to the face, neck and ears, and then an additional 5ml to each limb, torso front and torso back. If using a secondary sunscreen this should be applied to clean dry skin 20 minutes prior to sun exposure, while a primary sunscreen can be applied to clean dry skin immediately before stepping into the sun. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours to ensure maximum protection.
Broadly speaking, it’s unlikely that the active ingredients in SPF formulations are the culprits for causing breakouts. It’s far more likely that the other ingredients used in the formulations are the cause for congestion. There are many cosmetically elegant and lightweight sunscreen formulations on the market that are less likely to create a breakout
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