Despite high SPF50+ sunscreens on the market that are capable of providing hours of protection from sun damage, it’s an unfortunate reality that people continue to become sun burnt while wearing sunscreen. The reasons why we’re still getting sun burnt are simple – we aren’t applying enough sunscreen to properly protect ourselves. Having done some investigation, I was incredibly surprised exactly how important applying the recommended amount of sunscreen is and that applying anything less gives an almost catastrophic reduction in protection.
Sunscreen testing and certification
Before going into detail, it’s worth noting that the sun protection factor (SPF) claimed on packaging have been certified in a laboratory under very detailed conditions relating to the amount of product applied to a surface area (for the technical people, its 2mg/cm-2). For your sunscreen to achieve the claimed SPF, it must be applied in the same manner and for the average adult, this means approximately 36grams (roughly 36mL) for a full body application. For the golfers out there; 36mL is roughly the size of a golf ball in terms of volume, for the chefs/cooks, its 1.5-2 Tablespoons. For those whom are above average in terms of weight or height, they’ll need to use more sunscreen and for those smaller than average (including children) less can be used.
To use an example of how poorly this is communicated to consumers, I recently received a customer complaint where an individual believed that their SPF50+ sunscreen was faulty as the family were sun burnt after using the product. A detailed investigation found that product was not faulty, leaving consumer misuse as the likely cause.
To set the scene, a husband, wife and three children were holidaying in Queensland, Australia and spent the day at a water park between the hours of 9am to 5pm, using a SPF50+ sunscreen. The questionnaire completed by the parents suggests they followed the product directions and re-applied every 2 hours. An SPF50+ sunscreen should provide 10 hours of sun burn protection if used correctly, more than enough protection for the 8 hours they enjoyed the sun. The reason the family became sun burnt was revealed in the answer to the question “How much sunscreen was used?” the answer; “half a 100mL bottle”, interestingly the amount was also described by the consumer as a “liberal” application. Some fairly straightforward math here shows that 50mL used on 5 people would require ~10mL per person all day, with 4 applications, that’s ~2mL each application, does that sound like enough when we’re supposed to being using ~36mL every 2 hours?
Some more detailed math, taking into account the surface area of average adults and children show that the family used, on average roughly 1/8th of the 36mL used to substantiate the SPF50+ claim. If we assume that having used 1/8th of the recommended amount, the protection would be 1/8th of the labelled SPF, this equates to an SPF of 7.5 (75 minutes) – insufficient protection for the 8 hours they were out in the sun. The reality however is considerably worse as physics is a cruel mistress, and doing something as simple as halving the quantity applied does more than just halve the performance because absorbance is what is referred to as ‘logarithmic’, bear with me as I attempt to explain.
The quantity of UV light that passes through a sunscreen diminishes more and more as it passes through, a visual explanation is provided below using a SPF 3 (offering 30 minutes of protection) sunscreen absorbing 66% of light and applied in 4 layers to create protection equal to that of a SPF75 sunscreen (offering 750 minutes of protection), 25x more protection than a single layer:
So what’s happening in the above diagram you may ask? The first layer absorbs 66% of the light, transmitting 34%, at this point we focus on what is being transmitted to illustrate, if the second layer transmits 34% of the 34% transmitted by the first layer, then the second layer transmits 11.56% (34% x 34%), the third layer transmits 34% of the 11.56% (11.56% x 34% = 3.93%) and so on and so forth.
The same works in reverse for a sunscreen which has been incorrectly applied as follows:
The above shows that using 1/4 (25%) of the recommended amount of SPF50+ sunscreen (offering 600 minutes of protection) creates protection equivalent to an SPF3 sunscreen (offering 30 minutes of protection). Going back to the original complaint where the consumer was found to have used 1/8th of the recommended amount, the equivalent protection is in fact less than SPF2, it was almost not worth the effort or expense applying any sunscreen!
The below graph may also help to explain the relationship between SPF and applied amount:
There have been a number of studies performed demonstrating how little sunscreen we as consumers apply and that sunscreen performance claimed is rarely achieved. I suggest that the underlying fault lies in the standards used to substantiate SPF where there is a huge difference between the amounts used to measure SPF in the laboratory and that typically used when we’re at the pool, beach or playing sport.
What does it all mean?
It is not necessarily reasonable to expect consumers to fully appreciate the amount we should be applying, we apply what feels right and what feels right is rarely the recommended amount! Logic suggests that the standards used to certify sunscreen should be updated to incorporate an amount that reflects what we use, or at least something more in-line with what we use, such that the claimed SPF is similar to that which we can expect to achieve. Having said that, the implications are that SPF50+ as the maximum claimable SPF isn’t likely to be reduced to account for a lower use amount so it really is up to the sunscreen industry to formulate product the encourages the use of more sunscreen, in the meantime however, we as consumers must learn to apply sunscreen properly.
It is simply not enough just to be wearing ‘some’ sunscreen, particularly if your intention is to be out in the sun for long periods of time, you must apply ‘a lot’ of sunscreen. If we were to think of UV radiation as a bullet with the potential to kill you, sunscreen could be thought of as a bullet proof vest and wrapping ourselves in aluminum foil is not going to stop a bullet… How much sunscreen should you apply, the answer is quite simply ‘a lot’.
And don’t forget to re-apply frequently!