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Sunscreens users getting less than half the protection they think

Sunscreen users advised to use products with higher SPF ratings

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

People applying sunscreen are receiving far less protection than they actually think, researchers* from King's College London have found.

It is well known that people don't receive the full ultraviolet radiation (UVR) blocking benefit of sunscreen, because they are applying it more thinly than manufacturers recommend. It is recommended that sunscreen is applied at a thickness of 2mg/cm2 - the amount manufacturers use to achieve their SPF rating.

For this study, published in the journal Acta Dermato-Venereology, the researchers assessed the DNA damage in the skin after applying sunscreen at varying thicknesses.

The study included fair-skinned volunteers who were divided into two groups of eight - (three women and five men in each). One group received a single UVR exposure, to simulate sunlight, to areas treated with high SPF sunscreen of varying thickness, ranging from 0.75mg, through 1.3mg up to 2mg/cm2.

The other group received exposures on five consecutive days - to mimic continuous holiday exposure. The amount of UVR exposure was varied during the course of the experiment, in order to replicate the conditions in holiday destinations, such as Tenerife, Florida and Brazil.

Biopsies of the UVR exposed areas of skin showed that, for the group that were repeatedly exposed to UVR, considerable DNA damage was found on the areas that received no sun protection, even though the UVR dose was very low.

Damage was reduced when sunscreen was applied at a thickness of 0.75mg/cm2 and considerably reduced when 2mg/cm2 of sunscreen was applied, even with much higher UVR doses.

Five days of exposure to high dose UVR with the sunscreen at 2mg/cm2 showed significantly less damage than just one day's low UVR dose exposure without sunscreen across all samples.

The researchers concluded that sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50, applied in a typical way, would at best provide 40% of the expected protection, as a result they recommend that consumers use a much higher SPF sunscreen than they think necessary to ensure they're protected from sun damage.

Professor Antony Young from King's College London said: “There is no dispute that sunscreen provides important protection against the cancer-causing impact of the sun's ultra violet rays. However, what this research shows is that the way sunscreen is applied plays an important role in determining how effective it is.

“Given that most people don't use sunscreens as tested by manufacturers, it's better for people to use a much higher SPF than they think is necessary.”

Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists said: “This research demonstrates why it's so important to choose an SPF of 30 or more. In theory, an SPF of 15 should be sufficient, but we know that in real-world situations, we need the additional protection offered by a higher SPF.

“It also shows why we shouldn't rely on sunscreen alone for sun protection, but we should also use clothing and shade. An extra consideration is that when we apply sunscreen, we are prone to missing patches of skin, as well as applying it too thinly.”


*Young AR, Greenaway J, Harrison GI, et al. Sub-optimal Application of a High SPF Sunscreen Prevents Epidermal DNA Damage in Vivo. ActaDV, 2018: DOI: 10.2340/00015555-2992

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