Sun Protection Decoded: This Is How You Can Stay Safe In The Sun

SPF, UVA, UVB – what do they mean? Knowing the difference is really important for looking after your skin and your health, so we found out.

Woman applying sun cream

It’s May, and while it mightn’t feel like it yet, summer’s on its way! The shops are full of tiny tees in tropical colours and chances are, we can ditch the umbrellas soon – for a few days at least. But one thing we need to shape up is our SPF sched – like majorly. Sometimes it’s confusing when you’re faced with loads of bottles from brands bandying about science-heavy terms, so we’ve broken it down, one letter at a time. Let’s start with the big ‘un… SPF

Skin cancer: The Facts

  • 90% of cases are caused by sun exposure.
  • Skin cancer risk doubles with five or more sunburns in a lifetime, but just one bad sunburn can double your risk.
  • Both sunburns and suntans are due to damage to the skin cells that can lead to skin cancer, premature ageing and pre-cancerous skin conditions.


This simply stands for sun protection factor. A sun cream with SPF15 means it’ll take your skin 15 times longer to turn red in the sun than if you’d slapped nothing on at all.  SPF15 blocks approximately 93.3% of UVB rays, whereas SPF30 blocks 96.7% – surprised? It’s for this reason that SPFs higher than 50 are no longer recommended as they encourage people to bake for prolonged lengths of time, while offering very little additional defense. SPFs alone do not protect against UVA rays. #FACT


Long-wave UVA rays don’t cause lobster-like skin; the feckers are more cunning than that with damage popping up a couple years down the line – hello wrinkles! By travelling deep into the skin layers, UVAs are responsible for photo-ageing and skin cancers. Peeps with window seats, watch out – UVA rays can also penetrate glass.


Short-wave UVB rays affect the upper layers of the skin, resulting in reddening and burning. They play in a role in developing skin cancers too.


Cream, screen, tomayto, tomahto. According to where you live or where you are lucky enough to go on your hollibops, location-specific terms can be confusing. Both suncream and sunscreen are the same product.

Broad spectrum

A broad spectrum sun cream protects against UVA and UVB rays – this is totes important for safety in the sun – make sure the product you pick states its compliance.  These babies contain physical and/or chemical barriers to protect your delicate dermis.


Star ratings are awarded to indicate levels (from one to five) of protection against UVA rays. Introduced in 1992 by Newcastle University for Boots, the scale has now been adopted by sun cream manufacturers globally. #Yay


Chemical barriers absorb UV rays, soak readily into the skin and are thought to be metabolised by the body. Names to note include Avobenzone, Meroxyl and Oxybenzone.

Avoid any cream with Oxybenzone because it breaks down very quickly in the sun and can cause more free radical damage to the skin than not using any sunscreen at all.

Olivia Chantecaille, creative director of luxury skincare skin Chantecaille, encourages side-stepping a certain chemical. “I learned while doing research on SPF ingredients to avoid any cream with Oxybenzone because it breaks down very quickly in the sun and can cause more free radical damage to the skin than not using any sunscreen at all.”

Luckily suncream manufacturers frequently combine Oxybenzone, Octocrylene and Avobenzone to complement their diverse talents in absorbing UV rays while offering complete protection – so don’t let that put you off.


Physical barriers such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide remain on the surface of the skin, reflecting oncoming UV rays, and are often the preferred choice of dermatologists due to their brilliant broad spectrum properties and suitability for those of us with sensitive skin, eczema or rosacea.

However, these shiny credentials are often overlooked because the white mask they sometimes leave on skin can be mega off-putting. New York based dermatologist, Dr Debra Jaliman, warns: “This is the property that makes these products safe to use. When sunscreens go on white it means they contain micronized zinc or titanium oxide.”

And the take-home message? Use a 5-star, broad-spectrum, SPF50 suncream – every day.