What is SPF and what are its skin benefits?

It's an essential come rain or shine


by Emma White |
Published on

SPF stands for sun protection factor and it’s a non-negotiable in any skincare routine.

No matter what time of year it is (yes even in the depths of winter) or what the weather is doing, sun damage still occurs. Wearing SPF daily is essential for protection against skin ageing and skin cancer. You do not want to be forgetting your SPF, girlies.

If you've already mastered using Vitamin C (a must-have for glowy and healthy skin) and face exfoliation (the gateway to a smooth and clear complexion) we applaud you. But if you're forgetting to finish your routine with SPF, babes this is blacklist behaviour.

You might be wondering what different types of SPF are there and how do they actually work. Don't worry, because we've called in SPF experts and dermatologists to get the lowdown on the skincare essential and exactly how to incorporate it into your routine.

What is SPF?

“SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and the number that follows indicates the level of protection from the sun. It is a measure of the amount of UVB (ultraviolet B radiation) protection,” says Amy Ford, Founder of Hello Sunday SPF.

Put simply, the higher the number (e.g. SPF 50), the longer the sunscreen will protect your skin.

“What most people don’t know is that the Sun Protection Factor actually has no relation to UVA protection. In fact, UVA protection is measured with a completely different scale called the PA system. In order to get both UVA and UVB protection, you must look for sunscreen products labelled ‘Broad Spectrum’,” explains Heather Wish, Educational Manager at Paula’s Choice UK.

What is the difference between UVB and UVA rays?


“UVB is responsible for burning. They are shorter rays that penetrate the surface of the skin causing trauma such as sunburn, blistering and peeling. ⁠UVB intensity fluctuates as it is strongest on hot days and cannot penetrate glass. Higher factors are crucial in the summer,” explains Abi Cleeve, MD at Ultrasun UK.


“UVA rays are longer waves and penetrate deep into the dermis. We are exposed to UVA every day as it is present in light, even through glass. Regardless of the climate and season it can cause long term damage and premature ageing. That's why it's key to wear SPF all year round,” says Abi.

"Over 80% of all ageing is due to the sun. Sun protection should be part of a daily skincare routine year-round."

Abi Cleeve, MD at Ultrasun UK

The benefits of SPF

Wearing SPF daily has a host of benefits. As well as being essential for protection against sunburn, skin cancer and premature ageing, many formulas offer skin-boosting benefits too.

"A good UV protection product now multi-tasks, delivering a lightweight under make-up formula that often rivals and replaces BB and CC creams, by also giving enhanced anti-ageing, anti-pollution, skin radiance and smoothing benefits, alongside the crucial high SPF and UVA filter as standard," explains Abi Cleeve, MD Ultrasun UK.

Amy Ford, Founder of Hello Sunday SPF, chats us through the key benefits of SPF:

  • "SPF reduces the risk of skin cancer - excessive exposure to the sun and UV radiation is a significant risk factor for skin cancer. Using sunscreen can reduce this risk.

  • It helps to prevent sunburn - sunburn can be painful and cause damage to the skin. Using sunscreen with a high SPF can help prevent this by blocking UV radiation from penetrating the skin.

  • It also helps to reduce the signs of premature ageing - exposure to harmful rays can cause premature ageing, including wrinkles, age spots and fine lines. Using sunscreen can help prevent these signs by protecting the skin from harmful UV radiation”.

How to use SPF

SPF should always be applied as the last step of your morning skincare routine. Thankfully there are countless formulas that are designed to sit effortlessly under make-up, without leaving any greasy residue or white cast (yuck!). So there are no excuses not to wear it daily.

Make sure you are applying enough SPF to protect your entire face, neck AND ears. Two finger lengths are the recommended amount for sufficient coverage, but as everyone's face shape and size differs use your discretion and apply more if you feel you need it.

Dr David Orentreich and Dr Catherine Orentreich, dermatologists for Clinique, chat us through their top tips for how to use SPF.

  • "Apply a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day.

  • For prolonged outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, sweat-resistant broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

  • Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons or a shot glass) of sunscreen to your whole body 30 minutes prior to going outside.

  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after extreme sweating or swimming."

For SPF top-ups over make-up, we love using a sunscreen spray that can be spritzed all over without affecting your base. Pop one in your bag for on-the-go protection.

Do sunscreen recommendations change for darker skin?

“ALL skin tones need UV protection, and the common misconception that Black skin doesn’t need SPF is potentially dangerous,” says Abi Cleeve, MD at Ultrasun UK.

“Even though lighter skin tones are more susceptible to sunburn, regardless of skin colour it is recommended for everyone to use sunscreen. For darker skin colour it is desirable to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, as it is still possible to suffer the harmful effects of unprotected sun exposure, such as dark spots, wrinkles, dryness, and skin cancer,” explains Amy Ford, Founder of Hello Sunday SPF.

Can sunscreen trigger Vitamin C deficiency?

"Wearing high SPF sunscreens filter out most (but not 100%) of the sun’s UVB radiation. UVB wavelengths are the wavelengths that generate vitamin D production in the skin. Studies haven’t found that using sunscreen every day causes vitamin D deficiency. People who use sunscreen daily are able to maintain their vitamin D levels because it only takes a very small amount of UVB getting into skin to produce the needed quantity of vitamin D. Fortunately, this small amount getting through is not enough to cause sun damage," explains Dr David Orentreich and Dr Catherine Orentreich, dermatologists for Clinique.

Do make-up products with SPF protect as well as sunscreen?

"While a number of moisturisers and make-up brands contain SPF within them, SPF is only for UVB rays, they often do not contain UVA filters. Their protection also deteriorates as the day goes on. By the very nature of their intended use, moisturisers and foundations are applied thinly and therefore don’t provide the level of protection needed," says Abi Cleeve, MD at Ultrasun UK.

Whether your foundation or tinted moisturiser contains an SPF or not, it is important to wear a separate SPF to keep your skin protected.

"Ideally, individuals should choose sun protection products for their face that contain SPF30 or above (anything less than this only offers low protection) and choose ones with broad spectrum protection to prevent damage from both UVA and UVB rays. UV rays also penetrate 90 per cent of cloud cover, making year-round protection important, particularly for avoiding additional skin ageing out of season," says Abi.

Other ways to protect your skin

"Alongside protecting your skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF30 or greater, there are other measures that can help you maximise your protection," explains Heather Wish, Educational Manager at Paula’s Choice UK.

  • "Protect your scalp and, to some extent, your face and neck by wearing a wide-brimmed hat; a baseball cap is helpful but it leaves your neck and ears at risk.

  • I know that wearing practically nothing (especially on a hot day) is far more stylish and comfortable, but for your skin, it’s anything but vogue—it’s damaging. It’s hard to keep enough sunscreen on your entire body without spending a fortune. Covering large sections of your body with UV-rated clothing is a great way to protect your skin, especially when you’re swimming, and it’s ideal for those who don’t like the feel of sunscreen from head to toe.

  • Wear UV-rated sunglasses to shield the skin around your eyes and the eyes themselves.

  • Avoid being in the sun during the peak hours when UV light is most intense – typically between 10am and 2pm.

  • Seek shade whenever possible; basking in the sun is never a good idea, although I know this might be the hardest advice to follow because being in the sun can feel so great!"

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