Sun protection products - old page

The fact that over-exposure to the sun can be harmful has been well-publicised. A multitude of authorities, including Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health, recommend the use of sunscreens as part of “sun safe” behaviour (

But how much do we understand about what sunlight actually does to our skin and how sunscreens help combat its effects?

What is good about the sun?

The light from the sun has a strong effect on mood and we know that people feel better when the sun shines. In particular, those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) show an improvement in the summer months.

Sunlight also acts on the skin to produce vitamin D, which is essential for good health, in particular to maintain health bones.

What damage does sunlight do to the skin?

Most of the damage from the sun comes from UV (ultra violet) rays – UVA and UVB. UVC in sunlight is completely absorbed by the upper atmosphere and therefore does not pose a problem for us. UVB penetrates into the outer layer of the skin and damages the cells resulting in inflamed skin or sunburn. UVA rays penetrate more deeply causing direct damage to supporting tissues. It is this that contributes to the signs of skin ageing. Both types of rays are attributed to causing different skin cancers, including malignant melanoma.

What is a sunscreen?

Strictly speaking, a sunscreen is anything which helps protect the skin against the harmful rays of the sun. This includes clothing, sunglasses, parasols and preparations specifically formulated to be applied to the skin. However we tend to use the term sunscreen or suncream when we talk about sun protection products.

The key ingredients of a sun protection product are UV filters.

What are the different types of UV filters?

All UV filters are chemical substances which act as sunscreens. They typically fall into two main categories: synthetic or organic filters, such as the cinnamates, which absorb UV light; and mineral or inorganic filters, such as titanium dioxide, which mainly reflect UV light. Frequently, both types are used in combination for optimum effect in a product.

For more information on how the different types of UV filters work see the “How do sunscreens work?” section below.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is an indication of the amount of protection a product provides against UVB light. The SPF number is an industry initiative that has standardised the way a product’s UVB protection is indicated throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world.

An SPF indicates the ability of a sun protection product to filter out UVB rays. An SPF of 15 will filter out approximately 93% of UVB rays and an SPF of 30 will filter out around 96%. An SPF of 15 is seen as the recommended minimum by most health experts.

The science behind SPF

The SPF number is determined by simulating “in-the-field” usage conditions in a laboratory. This involves exposing the skin of human volunteers to various amounts of simulated sunlight before and after application of a standard amount of protective sun product.

Since the SPF is tested on different human volunteers, all having different skin types, results can vary from one person to another. To make sure the correct SPF is assigned to the product, the test method will always involve a statistical calculation which takes into account acceptable and unacceptable variation levels and ensures the test is valid.

What is UVA protection?

Although UVA rays do play a small role in sunburn, UVA is mostly associated with premature skin ageing.

The UVA protection that a sunscreen provides will be evident on the label. In the UK we are probably more aware of UVA labelling but this may not always have been the case elsewhere in Europe.

Now in the UK and across Europe there is a harmonised way of indicating UVA protection on-pack – the letters “UVA” in a circle.

We should always choose a sunscreen that provides both UVA and UVB protection and this is recommended by the European Commission.  It is though important to remember that sun protection products should never be used to spend more time in the sun.

Can I get more protection from a sunblock?

The term “sunblock” should not be used on sun protection products as no sunscreen can provide 100% protection. This has been an industry recommendation since 2002.

What’s on a sunscreen label?

Sunscreen testing and labelling started to change from 2008 following a new European Commission recommendation aimed at keeping sun safety simple. Industry worked closely with the Commission on this, and the idea is to standardise as much as possible the way products are tested and labelled throughout Europe, so that whatever country people buy their sunscreen in, they’ll get the UVB and UVA protection they want with minimum confusion. 

SPF numbers

In recent years fewer SPF numbers have been used on sunscreen labels to simplify choice.

Also alongside the SPF number there will also be an indication of the type of protection that products give you – i.e. low, medium, high or very high.

The SPF numbers you are most likely to see now are shown in the table below.  

The European Commission’s Recommended SPF Numbers and their Protection Categories

SPF numbers

Why might I not be able to find sun protection products with SPF 2 and SPF 4 anymore?

Although products with SPF 2 and SPF 4 protection do provide more protection against the burning UVB rays than using no product at all, most health experts are agreed that SPF 15 is the minimum recommended level that everyone should be using. With this in mind, the European Commission has recommended that SPF 2 and SPF 4 products are no longer marketed. This is as a step in the right direction to encourage responsible public attitudes to the sun. Sun products should not encourage a tan because this is actually a sign of skin damage.

UVA Logo

The way that UVA protection is indicated to the consumer has been harmonised. This appears as the letters “UVA” in a circle (see below). This logo will be used throughout Europe, and consumers will know that their product contains at least the recommended minimum level of UVA protection for a sunscreen.

UVA logo

How much sunscreen should I apply?

Sun protection products are often labelled with instructions such as “apply generously” or “apply liberally”. The recommended amount to be applied is based on 2mg/cm2 body surface area – the amount used when conducting scientific tests for product efficacy. This works out at about 30-35ml (or grams) of sunscreen for the average body; but this is difficult to visualise.

This can be more easily thought of as a “golf ball” size amount of product per body; or at least six teaspoonsful.

golf ball size amount

So, to cover the exposed parts of an average-sized body, if you think of applying a good teaspoonful for each arm, a little more than this for each leg and two more for your chest and back. Another way of achieving the right amount of coverage would be to apply the product, let it dry and then reapply it again before going out in the sun. However, reapplication will not increase your level of protection beyond the SPF on pack, so applying SPF 15 twice, for example, does not make it SPF 30.

Don’t forget sneaky areas such as ears and under the chin – or the soles of the feet if you’re going to be lying down with them exposed to the sun! These areas can burn very easily.

When should I apply sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be applied and allowed to dry on the skin before you go out in the sun, and then re-applied often (at least every 2 hours - or more frequently if washed, rubbed or sweated off). It is important to reapply sunscreen to maintain the expected level of protection.

Sunscreens should never be used in order to stay in the sun for longer.

What does SPF in my moisturiser mean?

Certain types of moisturisers and foundations contain added protection from UV rays to help combat the rays’ anti-ageing effects, because it’s well-known that being out and about in strong daylight - even when it’s not that sunny – can contribute to the ageing process. Such products are not intended to be used as primary sun protection: their primary function is as a moisturiser or foundation and should be used in the same way you would use any other product of that type. If you're wearing these products and you're going to spend time in the sun you still need to apply sun protection products.

When you are unable to avoid sun exposure, you should choose a sun protection product, such as a suncream, specifically formulated and marketed for that purpose. These types of products will always include clear labelling about the sun protection factor that they will give you, as well as clear instructions for use. 

It’s good to think about the everyday sun protection you enjoy from your moisturiser or foundation as part of a lifetime investment in anti-ageing, and turn to specific sun protection products for the acute cover you need when sun exposure cannot be avoided, such as at the beach, playing outdoor sports etc.

Am I protected in water?

UV rays
 can penetrate water to a depth of at least 10 metres when the sun is overhead. Remember that the cooling effect of the water may be deceptive and may mask severe sunburn, which only becomes apparent after leaving the water. It is important to use a water-resistant or very water-resistant sunscreen when swimming, particularly between 11.00am and 3.00pm. After swimming, even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied.

Water-resistant sunscreens

There are many sun protection products on the market with the added claim of being water-resistant or very water-resistant.

Water-resistant sunscreens have been formulated to resist being washed off by water, for example during swimming, and will have been thoroughly tested to make sure they work as claimed. The laws that cover the manufacture of cosmetic products require that all claims made are substantiated.

Some products are more easily washed off the skin with water than others. However no product is 100% resistant to being washed off with water, therefore the term “water-proof” should not be used.

Which SPF is best suited to my skin?

The susceptibility of an individual to skin damage from the sun depends to a great extent on their skin type. Skin typing is simply a basic way to categorise the sensitivity of the skin to the sun. According to the “Fitzpatrick Scale” this is:

Skin Types

Identifying your skin type will help you to decide on the level of protection necessary during sun exposure - for example, skin type I requires very high protection since the body’s inherent protection is very low and the skin is readily burnt by small amounts of UV rays.

The top priority is to guard against sunburn. When choosing a product it is best to aim for one of SPF 15 or greater, contains UVA protection, that is water-resistant and has an application method that suits your needs; this will encourage proper usage.

Sunscreens should never be used in order to stay in the sun for longer.

A person's skin type is the same over all the body, so the same SPF can be used all over. However, particular care needs to be taken over areas that are not usually exposed to the sun e.g. the abdomen, tops of the legs and the feet, or are particularly vulnerable to sunburn such as the nose, chest and tips of the ears.

What should I consider when going abroad?

The basic precautions against the harmful effects of the sun are:

  • use an appropriate sunscreen
  • wear appropriate clothes
  • seek shade
  • be aware of reflected sunlight (from water, snow, sand etc)
  • avoid direct sun particularly during the hottest four hours of the day (11.00am to 3.00pm in the UK and 12.00noon to 4.00pm on the Continent).
  • reapply sunscreen liberally and often

You will probably need to use a higher SPF in the Mediterranean than you will in the UK. However, it should be remembered that the burning power of the sun in the summer in the UK can be as great as in the Mediterranean and you should choose your SPF accordingly.

In the tropics, the season is always summer and the intensity of the midday sun is extremely high. Observe the rules mentioned above, always use a sunscreen of at least SPF 25 and reapply frequently to replace any sunscreen lost through sweating and wiping. In these circumstances, a “water-resistant” or “ very water-resistant” type product would be best.

It is also important to protect yourself from the sun when skiing. Snow reflects up to 90% of UV radiation and, in addition, UV radiation increases by 20% for every 1000m above sea level. For this reason, sun protection is important in snowy conditions. Even in winter, there is sufficient UVB at skiing heights to cause severe burning. As a consequence, full precautions against UV damage should be taken, including sunscreens, clothing and goggles.

Click here for more tips for going on holiday.

Will wearing sunscreen stop my body making vitamin D?

Sunlight acts on the skin to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for good health, in particular to maintain healthy bones.

Most people have sufficient exposure to the sun in their everyday lives to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D and it is not necessary to seek extra sun exposure.

It is possible to source vitamin D through the diet by eating foods rich in the vitamin such as eggs, oily fish, fish liver oils and some fortified cereals. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that vitamin D should be obtained from a healthy diet or vitamin D supplements rather than unprotected exposure to UV radiation. It is still possible to get all the vitamin D you need by acting sensibly in the sun and using sunscreens.

How long can I keep my sunscreen?

Cosmetic legislation requires that if a product has a limited shelf life (less than 30 months) then it must have a “best before” date on the pack. “Best before” dating is not common as most cosmetic products are formulated to ensure they have a long shelf life. Even so, some consumers want to know how long an opened product can be kept. For products with a shelf life of at least 30 months, products may be labelled with an “open jar” symbol – this is known as the “period after opening” (PAO). The period is given as a number of months and is marked with a letter “M” under or within the symbol and it gives an indication of how long the product remains useable after opening.

Read more about storage tips at confidence in cosmetics.

In practice, most cosmetic and personal care products are formulated to ensure they have a shelf-life which far exceeds the normal time it would take to use the product up. This is certainly the case for sunscreens, provided they are stored under suitable conditions and not subjected to extreme temperatures.

Sun protection products should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight and with the lids firmly closed. Sunscreens should not be exposed to repeated extreme changes in temperature, such as refrigerator to car parcel shelf.

Products used extensively on a beach or left open for a length of time should generally be discarded after the holiday period. With correct storage and handling, nearly full packs may be kept until the following season, but small amounts left in the bottom of containers should be discarded. Also, a visual check will show if the product has separated or become contaminated – so discard a product if it has become discoloured, has an unpleasant odour or doesn’t look like it should.

How do sunscreens work?

The main component of a sunscreen product is the UV filter or filters. Their job is to stop ultraviolet light from reaching the skin. UV filters can do this in one of two ways: they can either absorb the UV-light by “soaking it up”; or they can scatter it and reflect it away from the skin. Consequently, there are two different types of UV filter and these are:

Absorber filters (or organic filters)

Absorber type UV filters work by absorbing ultraviolet light much like a sponge soaks up water. Each tiny sunscreen “sponge” soaks up ultraviolet light, and then releases it back out after converting it into lower energy and less dangerous infrared light. These filters can be thought of as “energy converters”, converting dangerous ultraviolet light into safer infrared warmth.

absorbed light


Reflector filters (mineral or inorganic filters)

Unlike the absorber-type UV filters, reflectors tend to be less specific about the type of UV-light they reflect and tend to protect against both UVA and UVB. These sun filters act in a different way. Instead of soaking up the UV rays in the way that the absorber sun filters do, these materials reflect and scatter the UV light away from the skin without changing it to anything else. They can be thought of as thousands of tiny mirrors each reflecting UV light away from the skin.

reflected light


Organic and mineral sunscreens – Is one better than the other?

No – they just work in different ways.

The most commonly used UV filters are the absorbers because these are more efficient (you get more sun protection for the same amount of ingredient). However they are often supplemented with reflectors.

Some customers with sensitive skins or certain allergies may prefer a product with less absorber-type (organic) filters. In order to ensure that the product still provides the required amount of UV-protection, the absorber filters are replaced with reflector (mineral) sunscreens. Allergy and reaction to sunscreens are very rare so the large majority of users find absorber-type sun filters suit their needs.

Organic sunscreens often get a bad press because they are sometimes referred to as “chemical sunscreens”. There is a growing trend to see “chemical” as something of which to be scared – but this is just not the case. There is a legal requirement that they must undergo a very strict safety assessment by a qualified safety assessor. The assessment covers the safety of the finished product, as well as all of the individual ingredients, how and where the product is to be used, by whom and how often.

Because different UV filters tend to be effective against different UV-light wavelengths most sun protection products include several different UV filters. This means they provide a broad spectrum of protection across the whole range of UV. Including different filters in a product also helps to achieve the high levels of sun protection.

Another thing to know about all sun filters is that many of them will not dissolve in water. This means that sun products must contain oil ingredients to help dissolve the sun filters. Manufacturers try to keep the oil content to an absolute minimum to prevent the finished product from being greasy, but a small amount in the product is essential.

New innovations


Sunscreen that will stay on the skin for longer

Sunscreens are always vulnerable to rubbing-off whether by simple abrasion, towelling or swimming so reapplication every 1-2 hours has always been recommended. However in recent years new products which are considerably more substantive have been developed. These longer lasting products rely on new formulation tricks to stay on the skin longer. Some products incorporate ingredients which facilitate penetration of the UV filters into the upper layers of the stratum corneum where they are protected from being rubbed-off. Others use active ingredients which attach to the skin, and several others rely on the technique of embedding the UV-filter in a continuous film of water and abrasion resistant material which binds tightly to the skin. Whatever the technology, the end result is a product that continues to protect for many hours after application. But remember never use a sunscreen to stay longer in the sun.

Antioxidant Sunscreens

As previously described, sunscreen products work by filtering the UV light that reaches the skin. But filters are exactly that – a filter. So whilst they filter out a large proportion of the UV that falls on the skin, they will inevitably let some UV pass through and into the skin. This UV can then interact with natural components of the skin and generate free radical molecules which can then damage vital skin components through energy transfer mechanisms. Antioxidant ingredients can block these energy transfers or neutralise any free radicals that are generated and thus provide a secondary level of UV protection.

New formats

Manufacturers are constantly innovating around new ways of presenting products. New formats such as roll-ons and sprays help make the experience easier and more comfortable for the user. Clear sunscreens are an example of this type of innovation.

Most sun creams are opaque, i.e. they look creamy. That is because they are “emulsions”. Emulsions are made by mixing oil-loving and water-loving ingredients together (which under normal circumstances would not mix together), and stabilising the mixture through the use of special materials called emulsifiers. UV filters are usually either water-soluble or oil-soluble and an emulsion will contain a combination of these filters. A transparent product can be achieved if the formulation is a single phase, i.e. not a mixture that leads to an emulsion.
Transparent formulations have been around for quite a long time, but the problem in the past was that it was difficult to achieve an even distribution of UV filters on the skin. Thus the SPFs available in transparent formulations have to date been low, and previous examples include the low SPF oils.

It is now possible to formulate a “transparent” or “clear” sunscreen that is not only non-oily but also offers medium to very high protection. It is possible to achieve this through the use of special polymers that allow for an even distribution of UV filters on the skin along with the use of an effective combination UV filters which are all soluble in water or denatured alcohol.

Where can I find out more?

Visit our “Sunscreen myths - fact or fiction?” page.

If you want to find out about different types of ingredients in your products, visit what's in my cosmetic?