How to Find The Perfect SPF: Understanding Sun Protection Factor 101

by Devon Ost February 22, 2017

1 Comment

Hello Beautiful!

Spring is almost here…one more month of Winter remaining. Wahoo!!! For those of you that do not have the pleasure of enjoying the sunshine for 300 days or more out of the year, like us Coloradoans. You are probably planning or daydreaming about a Spring break, family vacation, or warm weekend getaway for next month. Or maybe you’re heading out here to ski? Wherever you are heading, and whatever you have planned, you will most definitely need a good SPF!

At White & Elm, we understand that buying a good SPF can be quite overwhelming. Especially, if you don’t know much about the Sun Protection Factor itself.

SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays, the kind of radiation that causes sunburn, damages skin, and can contribute to skin cancer.  SPF does not measure how well a sunscreen will protect from UVA rays, which are also damaging and dangerous.  (Hint: be sure to look for a Broad Spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVB & UVA rays).

For the best protection, experts recommend using a minimum SPF sunscreen of 15, applying liberally, and reapplying every 2 hours. Most people will under-apply sunscreens, using ¼ to ½ the amount required. Using half, the required amount of sunscreen only provides the square root of the SPF. So, a half application of an SPF 30 sunscreen only provides an effective SPF of 5.5! So, don't be shy!  Be sure to use enough product to adequately cover your skin. 

How does the Sun Protection Factor work anyway?  Let’s say your skin normally burns after 10 minutes in the sun. Applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the direct sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (a factor of 15 times longer). Now, this is a rough estimate that depends on skin type, the intensity of sunlight and amount of sunscreen used. 

This might also help explain the breakdown of coverage - The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) scale:
• SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
• SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
• SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

So, one way of looking at this is that SPF 30 sunscreen only gives you 4% more protection than SPF 15 sunscreen.   However, most formulators need to add up to 50% more active ingredient to reach the SPF 30 desired.

As I mentioned earlier, experts recommend using a minimum of SPF 15 sunscreen.  But you may ask, isn't the higher the SPF number the better? Let's chat a bit about that.

Did you know that the higher SPF’s don't give much more protection? In regards to high-SPF sunscreens, many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen labels. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and thus, exposing themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF.  For example, when you use an SPF 50, you might assume that you have all day protection.  However, just like lower value SPF products you should reapply higher SPF value products every two hours in direct sunlight.  Unfortunately, consumers select products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that the bigger the numbers, the better they are.

In 2011, the FDA determined that high SPF claims may be “inherently misleading,” and proposed to join most industrialized nations in capping SPF values at 50+. But it hasn’t finalized the rule, and the inflated SPF values for American sunscreens keep climbing.

Our friends at EWG believe that manufacturers should stop selling high-SPF products altogether. Only then can consumers have clear, straightforward information about what’s in the bottle and how to use it to protect themselves. We couldn’t agree more!

With all of that said, we know that we need to wear an SPF daily, but how do we choose the best one? We have a choice in the marketplace today between Mineral vs. Chemical sunscreens. Mineral or Physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays away from the skin. They are often referred to as physical blockers.

Chemical sunscreens contain organic (carbon-based) compounds, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, which create a chemical reaction and work by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers.

To add yet another layer, within the last few years, you may have also heard the terms, non-nano, and nano sunscreen? If you had heard of them, but you weren’t quite sure what they mean, trust me, you’re not alone. The idea of nanoparticles is relatively new. A nanoparticle is a piece of material that is so small it must be measured in nanometers. One nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter. For comparison, 10,000 nanoparticles could fit in the diameter of a human hair!  Why this matters, is that we are still unclear about the safety of nanoparticles on our health.

In recent times, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be manufactured at nano sizes, and have become popular in natural or mineral sunscreens to provide sheer sun protection without the notorious white residue of mineral sunscreens. People are more willing to use zinc- and titanium-based sunscreens if they don’t leave a white tint on their skin, unlike the sunscreen on the iconic lifeguard with a nose covered in white cream. At the same time, it can create concern for some people who might be worried that these tiny particles can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Chemical sunscreen ingredients, on the other hand, which are molecular in size and significantly smaller than nanoparticles, are designed to be absorbed into the skin, and thereby get into the bloodstream.

The EWG, recommends the use of nano-sized mineral sunscreens over chemical sunscreens any day!

Phew, that was a whole lot of info!  So, where does that leave you?  Well, for sure you need to be wearing a daily moisturizer with a minimum of an SPF 15.  You also need to look for sunscreens that are labeled Broad Spectrum because this means they have passed specific laboratory testing that shows they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.  If you plan to be in direct sun for more than a few hours, please reapply your sunscreen.  Also, if you are planning on swimming or sweating heavily opt for a Water-Proof formula as well.  It's best to avoid chemical sunscreens altogether because let's face it; we don't want the chemicals we put on our skin to end up in our blood stream. Also, because we don't yet know the impact that nanoparticles will have on our health, it's best to use mineral sunscreens that specifically use non-nano minerals.

One day, we will hopefully have a clearer definition or better understanding. For now, rest assured that at White & Elm, our Founder and Formulator did her research and took her time perfecting our Broad Spectrum Everyday SPF 15! It contains non-nano 12% Zinc Oxide as our active ingredient. While, Aloe Vera and Sunflower Oil provides smooth, lightweight moisture balance. It is also in gorgeous 1oz bottle, that will fit nicely in your purse, travel bag and will most definitely get passed security!

Lastly, don’t forget your sunglasses. They are essential!

Until next time, Beautiful!

We thank you for your support~


White & Elm

Devon Ost
Devon Ost

1 Response

janell ost
janell ost

February 23, 2017

Very informative!

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