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Unfortunately, most Britons know so little about how sun creams work they unwillingly expose themselves to skin damage, according to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.1

Luckily, we’re going to help. We’ll explain what SPF is and how it works. Then, we’ll advise which SPF is right for you, based on your skin type. That way, you’ll have a good idea of how to protect yourself from skin damage in the hot summer months.

What is SPF?

SPF means ‘sun protection factor’. SPF designations are only required to protect you from UVB rays. However, UVA rays are also damaging. Make sure you look to see your sun cream protects you from both UVB and UVA rays. UVA ray protection is typically indicated by an additional tiered star system.

How does SPF work?

The factor of your sun cream determines how long you can theoretically stay in the sun without getting burned.

How it works is a little bit complicated, but if you have sun cream with an SPF factor of 50, you should be protected 50 times longer than the time in which you’d typically burn. For example, suppose you’d usually burn in the sun after five minutes. In that case, once you’ve applied a sun cream with SPF 50, you should be OK for 250 minutes after applying.

The weather, atmospheric conditions, and your unique skin type all determine how long it’ll take to burn in the sun. However, in most instances, it takes people from five to thirty minutes before they burn.

Other factors which affect your burn time include how humid it is, how much you sweat, whether you’re swimming, and how much clothing you are wearing.

Different SPF levels

Sun creams protect you to different levels, but they’re categorised into four tiers of sun protection.

The tiers are:

  • Low protection (SPF 4, 6, 8 and 10)
  • Medium protection (SPF 15, 20 and 25)
  • High protection (SPF 30, 40 and 50)
  • Very high protection (SPF 50+)

Which SPF level is right for you

Most people should use a medium or high protection sun cream. People with fairer skin or in scorching conditions (like a beach) should choose a higher SPF.

If you’re so fair you redden even after a short stint in the sun, you should choose a sun cream of no less than factor 50, and consider specialised scalp sun protection (or wear a hat!).

You’re advised to protect children with no less than an SPF 50 or to choose very high protection for especially fair children and babies.

If you’re a light skin type, who is determined to get a good tan during the summer months, start with a higher SPF and reduce the protection level gradually. That way, your skin will get accustomed to the sun safely, as the process of bronzing is basically the skin’s self-protection mechanism kicking in.

Different types of sun cream

Widely available sun cream varieties include:

  • Mineral sun creams (these are made from all-natural ingredients and are typically reef-safe)
  • Cream sun cream
  • Spray sun cream
  • Broad-spectrum (protects from UVA and UVB rays)
Shop Natural Suncream & Suncare

Last updated: 18 December 2020

Janine Aquino

Author: Janine Aquino, Senior Regulatory Affairs Manager

Joined Holland & Barrett: Oct 2018

BSc (Hons) in Cosmetic Science

Janine started her career as a Technical intern at Superdrug while studying for her Cosmetic Science degree at the London College of Fashion, assisting Product Technologists in their roles by progressing NPD from initial concept through to post-market launch analysis and complaints.

Her experience spanned all categories sold at Superdrug, including colour cosmetics, toiletries, accessories and electrical goods.

After graduating her degree, Janine took up the Technical specialist role at Morrison’s leading the cosmetic and toiletries category from a Regulatory angle, including visiting manufacturers and attending and carrying out audits. Afterwards she moved onto become the lead Regulatory specialist for cosmetics at 151 Products.

Here at Holland & Barrett, Janine is responsible for...