SPF Levels: Which Is Best?

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Two million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer ever year. Not only does exposure to the sun cause skin cancer, it is also proven to accelerate visible signs of aging like lines and dark spots. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping your skin protected from the sun’s harmful rays. The first place to start is applying sunscreen, even in the winter. But are you using the correct SPF? You may be surprised to learn some of the major and minor differences:

SPF 15: Minimal Protection
While most dermatologists will agree any SPF is better than none, the FDA’s recommendation is for consumers to use “sunscreens with broad-spectrum SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.” “Many makeups and moisturizers have a low SPF added. Consumers like that, but it gives them a false sense of protection,” says Miami dermatologist Dr. Janice Lima-Maribona.

SPF 20: Limited Protection
SPF 20 will protect the skin against 20 times the exposure of UV rays than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen at all. “There is value in using a low SPF, but only for going from work to home—not to sit outside all day,” says Dr. Lima-Maribona.

SPF 30: Considerable Protection
Be it for the lips, face or body, SPF 30 is the official minimum number the AAD says should be applied to any exposed skin. “I always recommend 30—nothing less,” says San Francisco, CA, dermatologist Marie Jhin MD.

SPF 50: Maximum Protection
An SPF of 50 will block 98 percent of harmful rays. But, an SPF of 15 blocks 93 percent (so an SPF of 50 is only 5 percent more effective). The FDA is looking to cap SPF at 50+ because of “insufficient data that products above this amount provide additional protection.” “It’s been shown that, after 30, the increased sun protection is very minimal,” says Dr. Jhin.

Learn more about addressing sun damage here.

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