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What Are the Different SPF Levels?

By Erik J.J. Goserud
Updated May 17, 2024
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What sheds light on the world and makes fabulous tans can also cause the pain and potential diseases characteristic of overexposure. Luckily, clever human beings have figured out a way to protect against such harms. These protective measures are plentiful, among the most popular being suntan lotion or sunscreen. These products are usually creams or lotions containing radiation-absorbing ingredients that act as a protective shield against harmful rays. SPF levels refer to the strength of protection a product has against the sun, with the higher levels correlating with greater protection.

Acronyms can be confusing as not everyone knows what SUV, AAA, or NAACP actually mean. To clear up any confusion, SPF refers to sun protection factor. SPF levels should be indicated on sun protection products and usually range from 2 to 50. SPF levels are commonly misunderstood as meaning the amount of hours a person can be in the sun without burning. This is simply not the case.

What SPF levels actually indicate is the amount of time a person can be in the sun with the product on without burning relative to no protection. If a person with fair skin normally burns after being in the sun for 10 minutes, than that person wearing sunscreen with SPF levels of 50 would be able to remain in the sun for 500 minutes, or about 8 hours.

Due to the nature of this scale, SPF levels are not necessarily proportional. More significant differences are seen between low-level SPFs than high-level SPFs. Wearing an SPF level of 10 versus an SPF level of 2 is proportionately different than that same 8-point gap between SPF levels 42 and 50.

Each person is different — even twins have differing characteristics. People come in all shapes and sizes and all skin colors and skin sensitivities. For this reason, those with more sensitive and fair skin should be especially considerate of utilizing skin protection when outside.

Most health professionals err on the side of caution, and dermatologists are no exception. Most dermatologists recommend universal use in all seasons as the temperature does not need to be high for harmful rays to contact the skin. If a person knows his or her particular skin type and tendencies, he or she is more likely to stay protected from the sun. Consulting with a dermatologist and paying attention to SPF levels can also help people live healthy lives while enjoying the great outdoors.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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