Why Sunscreens With Higher SPF Levels Can Be Misleading

Safe sunscreen has been a hot topic this summer after tests found high levels of benzene — a known carcinogen — in many household labels. For many years, consumers and researchers alike have called the efficacy of various sunscreens into question. Today, it's more important than ever to discern the ingredients in your products, especially when it comes to SPF.

While higher SPF counts may look like the best option when it comes to finding an effective sunscreen, don't be fooled by the marketing jargon on the front of the bottle. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), SPF numbers can be misleading when it comes to the amount of protection they provide. The organization explains that a high-quality lotion will equally shield against harmful UVA and UVB rays. However, SPF numbers only reveal the level of UVB rays the product in question protects against. 

UVA rays can be much more damaging than UVB. SPF levels don't reveal the amount of protection your sunscreen offers against these wavelengths. In fact, EWG notes that UVA rays are responsible for premature aging and can penetrate deeper into the skin. Furthermore, USA Today reports, many people may overestimate the effectiveness of the sunscreen their using when the SPF count boasts a three-digit number. These numbers can be over-inflated and lead users to head into the sun without adequate protection.

High SPF numbers are particularly inaccurate

Over the years, as consumers began to associate SPF numbers with effectiveness, companies responded by putting higher amounts on their bottles — a move that had serious consequences. Marianne Berwick, professor of epidemiology at the University of New Mexico, explained to USA Today, "The high SPF numbers are just a gimmick. Most people really don't need more than an SPF 30 and they should reapply it every couple of hours."

The SPF number actually represents the amount of sun exposure it would take for someone to burn while wearing the product in question. As the level brims over 50, the returns start to diminish. "The challenge is that beyond 50 the increase in UV protection is relatively small," Dr. Henry Lim, chair of dermatology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, offers.

Making matters worse, the process by which they assign SPF numbers is far from foolproof. EWG explains that the testing procedure only uses a small sample size to determine the amount of protection the wearers receive. One experiment tested a product boasting 100 SPF two times — one test found that it contained 37 SPF while another reported 75. Essentially, the numbers can create a sense of security that's far from warranted.

Next time you're shopping for sunscreen, keep this in mind. Use other tools like hats, sunglasses and protective clothing when you plan to be outside for an extended period of time. Reapplying your lotion every hour or so will also help mitigate the harmful rays as well. Whatever you do, don't just rely on the SPF count on the bottle!