What is broad-spectrum sunscreen?

What is broad-spectrum sunscreen?

Bottle of sunscreen
Ever heard of broad-spectrum sunscreen? Nowadays we’re well aware of the dangerous effects of sun exposure on our health, and the importance of protecting our skin, but how do you know if you’re getting the best protection from your sunscreen? 
The advice is always to opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects you from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. Read on to find out what you should be looking for when shopping for sunscreen including SPFs and star ratings. 

What does broad-spectrum mean? 

Broad-spectrum when referring to sunscreen means that it protects against UV (ultraviolet) rays, more specifically, UVA and UVB rays. 
These rays can cause lasting damage to the skin, and deep beneath the skin - they can even change your DNA. Your sunscreen needs to specifically block these rays, and often the product will be labelled as ‘broad-spectrum’ to indicate that it protects against both types of rays. 
Alternatively, you may also see UVA and UVB clearly labelled on the packaging. 

UVA vs UVB rays - what’s the difference? 

Woman on a beach with sunburn back
There are actually three main types of ultraviolet rays including UVA, UVB, and UVC, the latter being the most harmful of the three but poses the least risk as it doesn’t penetrate the earth’s atmosphere. We’re more concerned with UVA and UVB rays as they have a direct impact on our health. 
Both UVA and UVB are absorbed into the skin and cause a great deal of harm. UVA rays, however, penetrate deeper into the skin, they’re present all through the day and can penetrate through clouds and even glass. 
UVA rays are associated with more types of skin cancers and are responsible for premature skin ageing as they can reach the dermis - the middle layer of skin after the epidermis. UVA rays penetrate deep beneath the skin’s surface and change DNA in your skin cells, causing them to mutate and grow, essentially becoming cancerous. 
Although UVA rays can cause tanning, the effects are not as visible as UVB rays which are responsible for the external damage to the skin known as sunburn.
Sunburn, tanning, and wrinkles are all signs of skin damage caused by UV radiation. It’s vitally important to protect yourself against this radiation, not only to avoid cosmetic issues but also more serious types of skin cancers such as melanoma

What does the UVA rating on sunscreen mean? 

UVA symbols
On any bottle of sunscreen, you should see ‘UVA’ followed by a number of stars. These stars are an important indicator of how well the sunscreen protects against UVA rays. If you’d like to delve deeper into the science behind this, the rating is a measurement of how much a sunscreen absorbs UVA rays compared to UVB rays. 
The stars are rated from 1-5, 5 stars being the most effective at protecting against UVA rays.
Alternatively, if you see UVA in a circle (see image above), this is a European marking that indicates UVA protection that meets European recommendations. 
To add to the confusion, you may also see ‘PA+’ which is simply another rating for UVA protection. It’s used more on international brands of sunscreen, and like the UVA star rating, the more plus signs you see the more protection you’re getting against UVA rays. 

The importance of SPF

Woman with the letters SPF on her back in sunscreen
As well as broad-spectrum and UVA star ratings, SPF is another important scientific term to look out for when buying sunscreen. It’s probably the most familiar term to you as it’s found in many skincare products and even makeup. 
SPF stands for sun protection factor and it is usually followed by a number up to 50. This number is a measurement of how long you can stay in the sun without your skin getting burnt. Essentially, it’s an indicator of how long the sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays. For example, wearing an SPF 30 means it should take 30 times longer for your skin to burn, and the higher SPF you wear the longer you are protected against sunburn, in theory. 
However, you should only loosely follow this guidance as everyone is different and you may not know how long it takes for your skin to burn, and we wouldn’t advise testing this out. Also, this guidance is based on applying sunscreen correctly, it doesn’t take into consideration that you may wash off your sunscreen when swimming, etc, so it may need to be reapplied more frequently than the SPF rating suggests. 
To get the best protection from SPF, ensure you’re applying it correctly and wear at least SPF 30. You need to protect all skin that’s exposed to the sun including lips, feet, ears, and scalp (if exposed) - these are often missed.

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If in doubt, lather on the sunscreen! Applying too little won’t give you enough protection so ensure you’re applying it liberally. Top up your sunscreen every 2 hours, or more frequently if you’ve washed it off in the pool, or have been sweating a lot. Some sunscreens say ‘water-resistant’ but we suggest re-applying it anyway to be safe. 

Your sunscreen checklist

Don’t compromise when it comes to sunscreen. If it doesn’t have everything you need to fully protect your skin it’s not worth buying. 
Now that you have a better understanding of what the scientific jargon means, shopping for sunscreen should be much easier. 
Your sunscreen must have the following:

  • Broad-spectrum protection 
  • SPF of at least 30 
  • At least a 4-star UVA rating or ‘UVA’ should be clearly marked in a circle to show that it meets European standards

Last but certainly not least, your sunscreen must not be past its expiry date. Expiry dates may not seem important when it comes to skincare, but it’s really important for the effectiveness of suncare.
Out of date sunscreens are ineffective and won’t protect your skin from UV rays, leading to serious skin damage. 
Some sunscreens will have the expiration date clearly displayed on the packaging, and others can be quite vague. You may see an icon of a jar opening that has ‘12m’ printed on it, or there may be a different number such as ‘18m’ or ‘24m’. This is an indicator of how long the product can be safely used after opening. If it is 12m, this means that you can use the sunscreen for 12 months after opening it. 
12 month PAO symbol
If you can’t remember when you last bought or opened your sunscreen, it’s fair to say it was most likely a long time ago and you should probably purchase another. If in doubt, throw away your old sunscreen and purchase another for the safety of your skin. 
Our recommended sunscreen is the Sunsense range. Not only does it tick off all the safety boxes, but there are also options for sensitive skin, it has a complete range for the face, lips, and body, and there’s something for the whole family. 

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Laura Shillcock -
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 22 April 2022
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