Do we need a campaign to explain what SPF means?

By Kofi Dwinfour

A new U. S. university study has found that many people seem to be confused by sunscreen terminology. Only 43 per cent of people surveyed understood the definition of sun factor protection (SPF) and only seven per cent knew what to look for on a label if they wanted a sunscreen that offers protection against early skin aging.

generic sunscreen

The study, conducted by dermatologists at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, concluded that there is need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand sunscreen labels.

Sunscreens with SPF help protect the skin from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns. However, research has shown that both ultraviolet A (UVA) and UVB can contribute to premature skin aging and skin cancers.

In 2011, the U. S Food and Drug Administration announced new regulations for sunscreen labels to emphasize the importance of 'broad spectrum protection' sunscreen that protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

"We recommend you buy a sunscreen lotion labelled 'broad spectrum protection' -- which helps to protect against both types of UV rays -- with an SPF of 30 or higher that is also water resistant," said Dr. Roopal Kundu, lead author of the study.

SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent of the UVB radiation. But, you need to reapply it every two hours, using about a shot glass full of lotion over your exposed skin, for the best results.

To assess knowledge of sunscreen labels, participants were shown an image of the front and back of a common sunscreen with a SPF of 30. Many had trouble identifying sunscreen terminology on the label.

  • Just 38% correctly identified terminology associated with skin cancer protection
  • About 23% were able to correctly identify how well the sunscreen protected against sun burn
  • Only seven per cent were able to correctly identify how well the sunscreen protected against early skin aging

"A lot of people seem unsure about the definition of SPF, too," Kundu said. "Only 43% understood that if you apply SPF 30 sunscreen to skin 15 minutes before going outdoors, you can stay outside 30 times longer without getting a sunburn."

The study participants were shown another sunscreen label where UVA protection was designated as a star rating (out of four stars) and UVB protection as an SPF value. Nearly 80% were able to determine the level of UVA protection and close to 90% could determine UVB protection. This could be a promising new approach to improve customer understanding of labels, Kundu said.

This got me thinking, are UK consumers any better at reading sunscreen labels or do we need a campaign to explain them?

Do you know what SPF is and what the difference is between the numbers? Share your story or leave a comment below.

Northwestern University. "Sunscreen confusion may burn shoppers: Consumers rely too much on sunscreen SPF values, confused by terminology." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2015. <>


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The prevalence of skin disease exceeds that of obesity, hypertension, or cancer. Despite skin being the largest organ of the human body, dermatological research remains one of the most under funded areas of medicine. In a world where society has an increasing preoccupation with image and it’s importance to every aspect of a person’s life, sufferers of skin diseases are feeling and being more marginalised and isolated than ever.

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