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Expertly reviewed by Dr Maha Shariff, Aesthetic Doctor & General Practitioner
Even though most of us never hesitate to apply sunscreen on holiday or on sunny days at home, digging out a bottle in the winter may not come naturally. But is it really necessary to wear SPF in any weather?
Why should you wear sun cream and which is best for your skin type?
With the advice of Aesthetic Doctor & General Practitioner Dr Maha Shariff, we’re here 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 due to UV (ultraviolet radiation) throughout the year.
SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’. SPF is a measure of how much protection sunscreen products offer against UVB rays.
In total there are three types of UV rays, UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC, although most damaging, is filtered by the atmosphere, so we mostly hear about UVA and UVB. Whilst UVA accounts for 95% of radiation reaching the earth's surface; it penetrates deeper and is present all year round.
Furthermore, up to 80% of the signs of ageing we see affecting our skin such as lines, wrinkles, sun spots etc are due to exposure to UV light. 4
The longer you stay in the sun without sun protection, the greater your chances of burning. In fact, tanning and sunburn indicate damage to your skin as your melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) produce more melanin in an attempt to protect cell DNA from damage.
The sun in the UK is strongest from March to October, so it’s wise to apply a sunscreen that will provide you with protection of at least SPF 30.
This said, UVA rays are present all year round so using an SPF is a great addition to your morning skincare routine and an investment in your skin health.
Physical sun protection is also important when on holiday or hot days, so invest in hats, sunglasses, clothing, as well as avoiding times of peak sun.
Regardless of how strong your sunscreen is, if you sweat or get wet, you must put some more on again, ideally every two hours, to make sure your skin stays fully protected.5
The numbers you see on your sun cream or lotion, spray or gel are ratings based on the level of protection they offer. For example, factor 2 offers the lowest form of UVB protection and SPF 50+ offers the strongest protection.
This measures the amount of ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) protection, with a rating of up to five stars being the highest shown on UK sunscreens.
UVA targets the skin more deeply than UVB and is a key factor in skin wrinkling and ageing. Choose a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen, as this indicates that it offers both UVA and UVB protection.
Sun creams protect you to different levels, but they’re categorised into four tiers of sun protection.
It’s important to use the correct amount of sun cream to achieve these levels of protection indicated on the product, with SPF 30 recommended as a minimum.
SPF works by essentially creating a barrier between your skin and the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.
Some contain inorganic chemicals, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which act as a physical sunblock. They reflect UV rays, similar to how white paint reflects light.6
It’s recommended to use an SPF 30 or above all year round. However, if you have sensitive skin or are fair, consider using a factor 50 and scalp sun protection.
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.
Just one look at the different sunscreen products available, online and in-store, can be a bit mind-boggling, especially when you need to consider SPF strength and UV star rating, as well as the product type, brand and customer reviews etc.
It is important you do your research when you buy your sunscreen because it does an extremely important job and you want your skin to be as protected as possible.
Just as you would take your skin type (normal, dry, sensitive, oily or combination) into account when you’re choosing a skincare product, you need to do the same when you’re shopping around for an SPF too.
Look for lighter weight, oil free products, as well as non-comedogenic options to avoid clogging pores.
Quite a few sunscreens that have a high SPF factor tend to have a thicker consistency, and this heavier consistency can leave your skin feeling clogged and sticky.
This is far from ideal, especially if your skin is already quite greasy - your pores are already prone to getting clogged and developing blemishes. 8
Look out for: Oil-free, lightweight creams, gels, fluids, lotions and mineral powders that won’t leave your skin feeling greasy or congested.
SPFs that don’t contain certain ingredients, particularly alcohols or essential oils, that can irritate skin get on better with sensitive and blemish-prone skin.
If your skin is extremely sensitive, try a mineral powder sunscreen instead. However, as it can be rubbed off more easily, so remember to reapply.
Look out for: Lightweight or mineral powder sunscreens that contain minimal ingredients and no fragrances that can aggravate skin.
Choose lightweight, hydrating SPFs that also act as a moisturising face cream. They deliver a double action boost by hydrating skin as well as protecting it from the sun.
Look out for: Hydrating and moisturising SPFs that are packed full of moisture and don’t overwhelm skin.
Stick to a lightweight SPF that will provide protection without flooding your skin with too much heavy product and block your pores, while also providing moisture where it’s needed too.
Look out for: SPF gel formulations that aren’t too thick or greasy, but will still provide adequate moisture.
Just as there are moisturisers with SPF and face cream with SPF, there are specific sunscreen products for protecting the skin around your eyes, your lips and your hands from the sun too.
However, these are sometimes only SPF 15 and so using regular sun cream and gently applying to the face will give you the protection you need.
Look out for: Lip balm with SPF, eye cream with SPF and hand cream with SPF that have been specially formulated to protect while also taking care of your lips, delicate eye area and hands.
If you have a dark complexion you’ll also need to use SPF, as your skin can still burn and get damaged by the sun.
Regardless of skin colour an SPF 30 or above is recommended. Whilst melanoma rates are lower in darker skins, they are also prone to pigmentation and melasma, so SPF is a defense against this.
Look out for: Factor 30 or above, well-absorbing, perhaps a tinted product to suit your skin tone.
If you have pale skin, you’ll likely need high to very high protection SPF as your skin will burn quicker than those with darker skin tones.
Look out for: Factor 50, mineral or chemical sunscreen formulation.
At least a four-star UVA protection and SPF 30 is recommended for most people as a shield against the sun’s rays. However, this can differ depending on your skin type.
For a boost of added moisture, those with dry skin should opt for cream or gel-based products. If you have oily or spot-prone skin, oil-free sunscreens will protect you from the sun without clogging your pores.
Getting the right SPF for you is one thing, but using it properly is equally as important.
If you’re going to have a lot of your skin exposed to the sun, then you’ll need at least a thumb-sized amount of SPF for your whole body – a teaspoon sized dollop for each arm, leg, your front and your back.
Be sure to apply your SPF last, so after you’ve used any serums or moisturiser. If it’s a mineral sunscreen you should be good to go out in the sun straight away, but if it’s a chemical one you’ll have to wait 15-30 minutes for it to sink in.
And it’s super important to reapply every two hours or after you’ve been in water or exercised.
Which ingredients you can and can’t you mix it with:
Try not to mix your own SPF/moisturiser or makeup hybrid as this will affect the efficacy of the product.
Always wear SPF if you use retinol, vitamin C skincare products, benzoyl peroxide, AHA/BHA acids. It is important to only use retinol at night too, as it is an active ingredients which may increase skin sensitivity.
Vitamin D is created by our bodies from direct sunlight on our skin when we’re outside.
From October to March, sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB for our bodies to synthesise vitamin D.
However, sun safety is still important so make sure to protect your skin whenever it’s exposed to the sun and SPF application does not prevent vitamin D production.9
Eating oily fish, eggs or using a supplement are alternative sources of vitamin D.
There are a few skincare ingredients that may be able to bolster your SPF protection, these include vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid which can be found in serums, however, they are not alternatives to SPF, which is our skin's best protection against UV damage.10
If it isn’t already in there, add SPF into your daily skincare regime, and if it is, great news, keep applying it every day.
MRCGP Member of the Royal College of General Practitioners, London, 2015
Dr Maha Shariff is an Aesthetic Doctor and General Practitioner in the NHS.
As an Aesthetic Doctor, the areas Maha specialises in include skin treatments and non-surgical aesthetic treatments. Maha is passionate about skin health and helping her patients to look and feel their best, understand how to look after and love their skin. She believes that you deserve healthy, radiant skin at every age.
She works in a GP Surgery in North London, having completed her GP training from the prestigious St Mary’s GP Training Scheme in 2015. She loves the continuity of care and really getting to know her patients, having been inspired by her own GP. She feels blessed for the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives through both her aesthetics and NHS work.
In her spare time, Maha enjoys time with her family, making delicious home cooked food, gardening and travelling.