Why (SPF) 50 is the new 30
High sun protection has a reputation for being thick and chalky, but a new breed of light, wearable formulas is changing the game, writes Perdita Nouril
When was the last time you applied sun protection? Despite all the literature on the importance of wearing SPF daily to fend off skin cancer and premature ageing, most of us are guilty of skipping this skincare step, unless we're relaxing on a beach.
This year's plethora of new formulas might change our laid-back approach to sun protection, though. Scientific breakthroughs have not only paved the way for lighter, wearable textures, but also higher levels of protection.
In the past, SPF50 had a reputation for being thick and chalky, putting most of us off. However, the new breed are slick, sophisticated and hi-tech. And the market research group NPD has reported that sales are on the increase, with the SPF50 category growing at 16pc year-on-year compared to 5pc for SPF30. Here's why…
With high levels of stress, pollution and exposure to UV rays, the modern world throws a lot at our skin. Even our choice of skincare can have consequences. "Retinol, acid peels and laser treatments improve skin quality and appearance, but they also weaken its natural protective barrier," explains skincare expert Dr Barbara Sturm.
"SPF50 has become more important in recent years because the top layers of skin lack mature, differentiated skin cells that can cope with UV light and other damaging external factors."
It's this line of thought that resulted in her Sun Drops SPF50 (€115, netaporter.com). The formula bridges the gap between an anti-ageing serum and a high-factor sun cream. Not only is it packed with antioxidants to help fend off free-radical damage - which exacerbates lines, wrinkles and sagging - but it also promises to protect our telomeres. For those not au fait with telomeres, these protect the length of our DNA and are akin to the plastic caps on the ends of your shoelaces. Without them, the lace gets frayed, damaged and ultimately becomes shorter. And essentially, the longer your DNA, the younger you should look - so it's worth taking good care of.
The third wave
Some of the latest SPF50 formulations are also dexterous enough to combat Infrared A (IRA) rays. We might be clued up on UVA and UVB rays, but IRA accounts for a third of the sun's rays, and few of us are even aware of it. "Because they have a longer wavelength, these rays can penetrate the skin deeper than UVA and UVB, and can cause premature ageing, free-radical and cellular damage," explains Dr Justine Hextall, consultant dermatologist at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Normal sunscreens reflect and absorb UVA and UVB, but IRA can't be blocked in the same way.
Fortunately, antioxidants can provide some relief as they combat the free-radical damage that IRA causes when the skin absorbs these rays. As a result, brands such as Ladival are including more antioxidants - including vitamins A, C and E - than ever before in their formulas.
Skincare pioneer Murad has combined a physical SPF50 barrier with the antioxidant lutein, to counteract not only IRA damage, but also pollution, levels of which are at an all-time high. While Ireland may not be as toxic as Delhi or Beijing, our summer months exacerbate the problem as the high pressure causes the air to be still, which allows toxicity levels to build up.
Murad's City Skin Broad Spectrum SPF50 (€43.95, lookfantastic.com) works by forming a breathable 'second skin' across the face, blocking environmental toxins from sticking to and penetrating the skin, while the buzz ingredient, lutein, forms an additional protective layer.
Forget pore-clogging, chalky textures, the latest SPF50s are featherlight and invisible. This is partly down to the Asian skincare trend, believes the co-founder of Cult Beauty, Alexia Inge. "For decades, Korean and Japanese women have worn very high SPFs, but with lighter textures. As a result, Eastern brands have been quick off the mark to create products that are much more hi-tech," she says. Korean brand Thank You Farmer's Sun Project Light Sun Essence SPF50 (€30, cultbeauty.co.uk) is a prime example of this. The almost water-like consistency sits beautifully under make-up and is infused with light-reflecting particles to brighten your skin and leave it with that lit-from-within glow.
"This is notoriously hard to formulate, because if you add light refractors or colour pigment to an SPF over 30 it becomes too thick, so most brands don't bother. That's why SPF foundations are 15 or 20," says Alexia.
Elsewhere, Shiseido has carried out extensive research to keep up with the huge demand for high-performing products in Asia. Most recently, research teams noticed that traditional sun-care products tend to sink into the microscopic ridges and furrows of our skin, meaning that other areas are left vulnerable to damage. To combat this, the brand has created SuperVeil-UV 360, a technology that ensures protection from every angle.
It's just one of the components of Shiseido's WetForce Sports BB SPF 50+ (€44.75, Arnotts), which also deals with sun protection's biggest conundrum - water. The patented technology ensures that the SPF not only retains its efficacy, but is boosted when you go for a dip in the pool or sea. Adrenalin junkies will also be pleased to hear that the more you sweat, the harder it works, while make-up aficionados will revel in its flattering skin tint, which masks imperfections so you can skip foundation.
Western brands aren't far behind in terms of SPF50 ingenuity. French pharmacy brand Avène has broken new ground with its Cleanance Solaire SPF50 (€20, Boots).
It's the only SPF proven to protect skin from harmful rays and fight blemishes simultaneously. Usually, high-factor physical SPFs tend to sit on top of the skin and block pores, while chemical ones, which absorb UV rays, irritate it and can result in breakouts. Avène's key ingredient, monolaurin, though, rebalances your oil production to prevent spots from forming.
Despite improved formulations, there are some experts who feel the factor number bears little relevance. Dr Luca Russo, a cosmetic dermatology expert, believes SPF30 works perfectly well, but the problem is that we don't use it correctly.
He carried out a study of 5,000 of his patients over the past 10 years and identified three key mistakes, as follows: We apply once we're already in the sun (for SPF to be effective, you need to apply it 20 minutes before exposure); we only use half the recommended amount; and we don't reapply on our face throughout the day for fear of ruining our make-up.
"It takes generations to change consumer behaviour, so it's easier to create a product that fits with your lifestyle," says Dr Russo. Enter his SPF30 Sun Protective Day Cleanser (€58). "We all wash our face in the morning and are far more thorough when using a cleanser compared to an SPF."
The technology behind his SPF cleanser is similar to that found in hair colour. When we dye our hair, the colour sticks to the keratin and any excess is washed off. With this cleanser, the detergent cleans our skin while the encapsulated SPF is charged positively, so it adheres to our negatively charged skin, even after rinsing with water.
As soon as sunlight hits it, the SPF starts the chemical reaction of filtering out rays. While this cleanser may help to thin out your morning routine, a belt-and-braces approach is still recommended by the experts.
For those with oily skin, La Roche Posay's Anthelios Anti-Shine Gel Cream (€20, Boots) is a particularly good option as it immediately mattifies the skin.
Dominique Moyal, from La Roche Posay's scientific department, says: "There is so much data to suggest we still don't apply enough sunscreen. Having SPF30 is not always sufficient, and SPF50 products have been developed to compensate for the lower amount applied by some."
Fortunately, the new wave of formulas is making it more appealing for all of us to use them properly.