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HealthSPF, UVA, UVB – let’s make these terms simple

We have all encountered the terms SPF, UVA and UVB many times. We have seen numerous sunscreen commercials and we have heard about these terms either from our pharmacist or another salesperson each time we visit a store to buy a sunscreen.  We are all even aware of the SPF rating scale. But do we really understand what these terms practically mean?

An important thing to understand is that the sun produces two types of Ultra-Violet (UV) rays that affect the skin: UVA and UVB. These rays can cause premature aging and increase your risk of developing melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancers. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to UVB rays, while UVA rays are known to play a major part in skin aging and wrinkling.

The proper sunscreen

You may be wondering what this has to do with SPF. The thing about SPF is that it only measures UVB protection, which is great if your main concern is reducing your risk of skin cancer. However, if you’re also concerned about premature aging, it’s important that you look for a sunscreen that states “broad spectrum” on the label. A broad-spectrum sunscreen provides both UVA and UVB ray protection.

The sun light that reaches the earth consists of 10% UV radiation, out of which 95% is UVA and 5% is UVB. Throughout the year, UVA has a stable presence at ground level. “A” means Aging and that is why UVAs are also known as photoaging rays. UVB’s characteristic is that its existence on the ground grows in summer and especially at noon. “B” means Burning. Understanding the difference between UVA and UVB rays helps you make better choices with sunscreens that contain broad-spectrum coverage. It’s also essential to understand why you should care for your skin and use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 throughout the year.

σημασία spf uva uvb

The Fitzpatrick scale

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is calculated by comparing the time it takes to burn a protected with sunscreen skin to the time it takes to burn the same skin when unprotected. So, for example, if one wears a sunscreen with an SPF 30 it means that it would take him/her 30 times longer to burn than if he/she wasn’t wearing any sunscreen at all.

Is SPF enough to indicate how quickly one burns? No, there are other factors as well that go into how quickly one burns, among which is the phototype of one’s skin. According to Fitzpatrick phototyping scale there are 6 skin phototypes which behave differently during the first sun exposure.

φωτότυπος και αντηλιακά

Therefore, someone with blonde hair, blue eyes, and porcelain skin is going to burn long before their friend with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. However, both should use a sunscreen with higher SPF to protect their skin.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.

• SPF 15 = 93% UVB protection
• SPF 30 = 97% UVB protection
• SPF 50 = 98% UVB protection

Are we really protected?

No sunscreen can filter out 100% of the sun’s UVB rays. This is why it’s a good idea to include other sun safety practices, such as seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and a hat, and staying indoors during the hours when UV rays in the place you are at are the strongest. A product with a high or very high SPF cannot warrant full protection. Therefore, do not let yourselves fall in a false sense of security when using a sunscreen product with very high SPF and stay out in the sun much longer or skip re-applying. For people who have a history or high risk of skin cancer, genetic diseases such as albinism or xeroderma pigmentosum or certain immune disorders, SPF 50 may not be enough. Same goes for certain scenarios, such as hiking or skiing at high altitude or vacationing near the equator. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for any extended outdoor activity.

Please keep in mind that sun defense is a complicated strategy, and a high SPF sunscreen is no more than a vital part of it.

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