SPF is an absolutely huge topic which is of particular interest to me as a skincare specialist. The
sun is a source of nourishment for us physically and mentally, but excessive and unprotected
sun exposure remains one of the leading causes of premature skin ageing.
There is quite a lot of misinformation and conflicting views out there when it comes to sun
protection. When a recent poll revealed that over 43% of women in the UK don’t wear SPF daily,
it got me thinking about why sun protection is such a major issue for lots of people, even when
we know the risks attached to neglecting our skin in the sun.
Here I’ve compiled some key facts on SPF with some common myths that prevent people from
protecting their skin on a daily basis.
So first, let’s cover some basics!
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. SPF extends the amount of time skin can be exposed to the
sun before burning. A product with an SPF of 10, for example, will multiply your natural ‘self-
protection’ time by ten. This means if you can sit in the sun for ten minutes without burning, SPF
10 will protect you for 100 minutes. But that doesn’t mean you should rely on this calculation to
prevent burning. There are two types of SPF, physical/mineral and chemical (more on this
Every single day! Yes, even when the sun isn’t shining. Reapply throughout the day, and don’t be
stingy. Use the ‘two fingers full’ rule – roughly two fingers of SPF is enough to cover your entire face and ears (see more on this here on my Instagram page).
‘Is Chemical is better than mineral?’
I’ve noted a certain distrust from some surrounding more natural SPF’s suggesting they are less
effective than chemical formulas. I’m here to tell you that they are just as effective. I love
mineral SPF and often recommend to my clients over chemical SPF, however they both are
effective and I find some suite certain skins better than others.
Let’s start by covering how both types of SPF actually work, and how they differ from one
Chemical sunscreen refers to man-made formulas which include ingredients such as
oxybenzone and octinoxate. It’s a bit of a misnomer, since all things within skincare on this
planet are classed as chemicals. A plant-based ingredient is still a chemical.
Chemical SPF works by absorbing UV rays then converting them into heat within the skin, which
is released by the body. There is a chemical reaction which takes place once applied, which is
why packaging will often recommend to apply 20 minutes before sun exposure, to allow this
process to take place.
Physical or mineral sunscreen contains Zinc Oxide or Titanium Oxide, which largely reflect the
sun’s rays away from the skin (more recent research does indicate that there is also some
absorption of UV similar to a chemical SPF) These are usually naturally derived ingredients that
also offer broad spectrum sun protection. They are effective upon application, so no wait time of
20 minutes. Zinc Oxide can also be soothing for the skin. Because they sit on the skin they need
more reapplication after swimming or excessive sweating as they can get washed off.
In general minerals are good for the skin, which is why a mineral makeup can be applied after
receiving a clinical peel but traditional foundations can’t.
Although not enough research has been conducted into the potential problems of chemical SPF,
anecdotal evidence shows that they might be irritating for those with sensitive skin, possibly
due to the intense amount of heat directed into the skin as the SPF does its job or some might be
sensitive the synthetic ingredient. This is why I don’t usually recommend chemical SPF for
clients with sensitive skin, rosacea or melasma, as the heat released by chemical sunscreen can
trigger flare-ups and irritate, however it really does depend on the individual brand and
The secondary issue is that skin’s sophisticated barrier function keeps certain things out, but
takes others in. Traces of ingredients from chemical sunscreens have been found in the
bloodstream, suggesting that they are absorbed by the skin further than we might want. It’s too
early to say whether there are adverse effects resulting from this, but many man-made cosmetic
ingredients have been shown to cause endocrine disruption (hormones) allergies and toxicity
when absorbed into the bloodstream.
In the not so distant past chemical SPFs were seen as the ‘future’ of sun care and were favoured
over physical as more efficient and easily absorbed. However the tide is now changing on
mineral vs chemical SPF – with many brands using scientifically formulated, highly effective SPF
products that offer pure mineral protection and also combined chemical and physical
protection, that’s also comfortable and wearable. We’ve also come a long way since the days of
chalky or pure white physical SPF – these more sophisticated formulas are designed to leave no
white caste or stickiness on the skin post-application and can also be water-resistant.
There’s a reason why sun creams pop up as spring/summer season starts, with dedicated aisles in supermarkets and health stores. Although we know that the sun still shines in winter, and you can get a tan and burn even on the snowiest slopes, most people only think about skin protection when the sun is out, predominantly during summer months. But the sun’s powerful rays are ever-present, even on cloudy, grey days (which we certainly have our fair share of here in the UK!)
To understand how crucial it is to wear sun protection each and every day, it’s necessary to break down what happens when our skin is exposed to the sun.
Sunlight contains both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin, playing a
greater role in premature skin ageing such as wrinkles (photoaging). There are around 500x
more UVA rays in sunlight than UVB rays, and your skin is exposed to them at any time during
daylight hours, even indoors and through windows (75% of UV rays find their way through
glass). UVB rays are responsible for sunburn and the development of most skin cancers (think B
When you consider the fact that it’s these ‘invisible’ UVA rays that cause skin ageing and DNA
damage, come rain or shine, it’s even more important to protect your skin at all times, even
There is a huge myth that suggests that skin with naturally higher melanin content doesn’t
require sun protection. On top of that, many people assume that people with darker skin tones
are at less risk of getting sunburn or skin cancer. Whilst it’s true that dark skin does offer a higher level of protection against the sun’s harmful rays compared with light skin, no-one is immune to sun damage.
Darker skin tones naturally produce more of the chemical called melanin, which gives the skin
its colour and absorbs damaging UV rays (responsible for DNA damage and ageing). This means
that darker skinned people have naturally more, ‘built-in’ SPF, but often this is over-estimated.
The darkest Black skin tones are estimated to have a natural SPF of around 13, which is two
below many brands’ minimum offering of SPF 15.
The belief that darker skin won’t burn (or be susceptible to cancer) results in a false sense of
security that can be damaging to the skin at best, or fatal at worst. SPF 30 is my minimum recommendation for everyone, no matter how much melanin you naturally have.
‘Added ingredients don’t matter – antioxidants can’t help’
When choosing an SPF formula, look out for added ingredients that can support and protect
your skin further when you’re in the sun. SPF can be accompanied by a host of antioxidants
which actually help to prevent and reverse damage and protect against signs of ageing. These
effectively supercharge your skincare routine as they’re actively working to minimise the
impact of sun damage within the skin. Ones to watch include, to name a few……
Vitamin C: A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin C is a great partner for SPF as it further protects the
skin against damage from sun’s rays.
Niacinamide: Niacinamide evens skin tone and texture
Bakuchiol: Hydrating Bakuchiol can plump fine lines and wrinkles
Also watch out for other added ingredients – the not-so-good kind. Avoid irritants such as PEGs,
SLS and parabens.
Please believe me when I tell you lower SPF is simply not a good idea. Many of the big beauty companies offer foundations, creams and other products all with built-in SPF. And while built-in SPF can be a good thing, there is a time and a place, it all comes down to formula.
Don’t assume (as so many do) that your foundation, with ‘built-in SPF 15 / 30’ is providing adequate protection from the sun on a daily basis. There are several problems with the ‘built-in’ trend from big brands, namely:
– SPF needs to be reapplied: You can’t just put SPF on once in the morning, then wear it throughout the day and expect to be covered, especially if the SPF is low. Ideally, SPF needs to be reapplied throughout the day over your make-up to provide adequate protection.
– SPF should be factor 30 or above: Most brands only work with SPF 15 or even 5 or 10,
when really we need SPF 30 to achieve full protection for our skin.
– SPF should be of a high quality to work safely and effectively: Built-in SPF is secondary
to the main function of the product, so how good is it really?
– We really want our foundation to focus on providing our fabulous base colour and our
SPF to be the best at sun protection.
– Its better to layer up with a proper SPF under your foundation.
Bottom line: stick with dedicated SPF. Many of my favourite brands have tinted and translucent
non-sticky, non-comedogenic formulas that work perfectly with and without make-up, so
there’s plenty of choice.
Ultimately the SPF you choose is a personal choice, but the main thing is that it’s wearable and
effective. Consider any skin concerns such as sensitivity, dryness, acne or oily skin prone to
breakouts – and look for formulas that suit you such as moisturising or non-comedogenic.