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Post Category: Medicines Information

The confusing world of sun protection factor and ratings explained!

Choosing sun protection for your child can be a completely confusing and overwhelming experience! Lingo thrown at you about SPF, UVA, UVB, Star ratings etc from manufacturers of products on their packaging! How are you meant to know what you actually you need and what is just marketing rubbish published solely with the view of targeting consumers to achieve sales?  Well I’ve had enough of the unnecessary consumer confusion caused by the industry and have decided to explain exactly what you need to look for and how you should go about choosing products!  I feel so strongly about parents having clear and accurate information so that they can actively protect their children and I don’t like that sometimes product marketing interferes with that! So here we go!

UVA/UVB/UVC Explained!

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Ok so the sun transmits three wavelengths of UV radiation.  UVC does not actually reach us so that’s one we don’t need to worry about when choosing products!

  • UVB – This is the guilty culprit for sunburn! Not only that it also contributes to cancer risk such as malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma.
  • UVA – This is responsible for two things predominantly – ageing and skin cancer.  It causes wrinkles and leathery skin and pigmentation by affecting the skins natural elastin.

SPF Explained!

SPF relates to the amount of time your skins natural protection against the sun will be multiplied by when using the product. SPF only relates to UVB protection and not UVA.

The most important thing to remember here is that typical ‘Irish’ skin which is pale and freckly will burn more quickly than genetically darker skin.

Children’s skin is extremely delicate and should always be protected – a minimum of SPF 30 is recommended. There are four levels of protection: low (factor 6 to 10), medium (15 to 25), high (30 to 50) and very high (50+).  Please note that developing a tan is not a sign of your child being able to handle more sun – it’s actually a sign that your child’s skin is trying to protect itself from further damage. I know this is contrary to what we may have always thought growing up but this quote from the American Skin Cancer Foundation sums it up well ‘The low level of photoprotection afforded by a tan is far outweighed by the damage incurred in its development’.

You may hear people say that SPF 30 is not twice as protective as SPF 15 as SPF 30 absorbs 97% UVB and  SPF 15 absorbs 93% but actually think about it a little bit more…. what that actually says is that SPF 30 does not absorb 3% of UVB rays and SPF 15 does not absorb 7% of UVB rays…. to me that does sounds like SPF 30 does a much better job!

The difference is minimal after that with SPF 50 absorbing 98% of UVB rays but remember it’s not just about the absorption – it’s about the fact that higher factors will allow you more sun exposure time before your skin is damaged by sun burn and cancer causing UVB rays.   Applying sun cream generously is critical to every theory – all testing is done in labs with generous applications to skin which is not trying to also combat sand, sweat and water!  For this reason you do actually need to reapply it regularly because if it’s washed, rubbed or sweated off it’s not physically working – no matter how many hours the packaging tells you it will last!

So what about UVA Protection?

So if SPF refers to the measure of UVB protection what about the harmful ageing and cancer causing UVA rays? Well here is where it gets a little confusing on the packaging!!  I have to admit this is really what prompted me to write this article…. I have had so many people in the pharmacy concerned about a lack of a ‘star rating’ on a certain product or confusion over SPF and UVA that I just think it’s completely unacceptable.  Consumers deserve the right to make fully informed decisions and the existence of more than one UVA ratings system to me is just not helpful in this regard!  I feel so strongly about it that I contacted the HPRA who are the regulators of sun protection products in Ireland.

So here is what they had to say,

Sunscreens are considered to be cosmetics in accordance with the European Cosmetics Regulation, EC (No) 1223/2009. This regulation applies to all cosmetics available for sale in Europe. While the EU regulation doesn’t lay out requirements specific to the labelling of sunscreens, there is a European Commission Recommendation (2006/647/EC) on the efficacy of sunscreen products and the claims made thereto which address this area…A sunscreen which claims UVA protection should provide a certain level of UVA protection in line with EU Recommendation. The EU Recommendation also outlines that the level of UVA protection should correlate to the SPF (or UVB protection) and the UVA protection should increase as the SPF increases.’

The EC recommends that the UVA protection offered in a sunscreen should be at least one third of the SPF. Sunscreen products meeting this requirement are eligible to display a UVA logo, with the letters UVA enclosed within a circle.  If this circle is on your product then you can rest assured that it meets EC Guideline recommendation standards for UVA protection.

So basically the only offical recommendation for UVA is the UVA circle Logo – please always make sure you choose a product with a high SPF AND a UVA Circle.

So what’s the star system then?

After lots of investigation I have clarified the UV Star Rating System.  This system does not come from an EC recommendation but is in fact a system introduced by retailer Boots.  Maybe my voice is biased as a small independent retailer but I actually like to think that I am extremely open minded and the whole basis of WonderBaba is about providing evidence based information in accessible language that everyone can relate to so that we all have the same certainty when making decisions as parents about our children’s health. The star system is great in many ways but unfortunately is flawed in others.  Im going to make a few points which may help you to understand it so that when looking at a pack of suncream you understand what your are seeing – or not seeing as may be the case!

  • The UV Star System is an optional one – basically if products want to be sold in boots they adopt the star rating system – this is what I have heard from my suppliers.  However not every brand or supplier dances to the same tune here so you may well be looking at a better product in terms of UVA protection but it may not have a star rating at all! To me that is confusing!
  • A high star rating does not actually indicate a high level of UVA protection! It relates to the ratio of % UVA absorbed compared to UVB so if a product has an SPF of 6 it can still have a 5 star rating – not because it offers high UVA protection – but because the ratio of UVA to UVB is good.  In this case the UVB protection is too low so therefore so also is the UVA!
  • If looking at a product which has a high SPF and a high UVA Star Rating this is good – however be aware that a product which has a high SPF and a UVA Circle with no star rating does actually meet EC standard and may even have higher UVA protection!  Basically don’t be conned by the marketing.
  • If I had two products in my hand which both had high SPF (I don’t bother pick up the low ones!)  and both had a star rating then great – I would go for the higher one.
  • If I had two products in my hand and only one had a star rating – I’d just look for the UV Circle and I would know that the level of UVA protection is in line with EC Recommendations.  I would make sure my product also had a high SPF!

Ok I think that pretty much highlights the issue – the confusion is due to the existence of two different ratings systems and to be honest there is only one which is an official recommendation from the EC which is the UVA circle.  The other in my opinion is clever marketing – but saying that the system itself is good – the problem is that it is not universal and thus is making the market place a little unfair for both consumers and brands.  And again don’t get me wrong – from my own perspective I stock products which both use or don’t use the star ratings system so it makes little odds to me as a retailer, but as a Pharmacist trying to advise patients and as a mother trying to make informed decisions to keep my children’s skin protected I find it confusing to have two systems in place.

Some other interesting points!

  • You can get some really good products which have a high SPF and a UVA circle (and/or a high star rating) in many shops, supermarkets and pharmacies anywhere in Ireland now.  I would however like to take this opportunity to say that I would always be careful what I use on my children’s skin – whilst a product may have good sun protection it still may not be paediatrically or dermatologically tested.  Quality skin care products should be used on sensitive and delicate skin whether they are sun protection or just general skin care.  Here is my review of sun products and advice with recommendations specifically included for children’s skin.
  • All SPF and UVA testing is done in a lab – they apply cream to skin which is not sweating, rolling in sand or in a swimming pool….. sun factor WILL WASH OFF in normal conditions – even if the product claims to be an all day product. up to 85% of product can be removed by towel drying. The guidance is to reapply sun cream every couple of hours and also after skin has been wet by sweating or swimming.  There is no other way to ensure your sun protection will work to the level stated on the bottle without a lot of generous reapplication.  I’m sorry – it’s inconvenient bad news – but it’s true.
  • Apply sun protection generously 15-30 mins before heading out into the sun.
  • A really interesting point is that the reflection of the sun’s rays can greatly increase the power of the radiation, by the following percentages:
    • snow up to 85% increase
    • sand up to 17% increase
    • water up to 5% increase


Read my whole sun care guide by clicking here!



I hope you have found this article helpful and if you have any questions at all please don’t hesitate to contact me by sending a private message to the WonderBaba facebook page  or my website contact page  or by calling me (Sheena) at Milltown totalhealth Pharmacy in Dublin 6 on 012600262.




Author: WonderBaba Blog

My name is Sheena Mitchell and I'm a pharmacist with my own business Milltown totalhealth Pharmacy in Dublin 6. From working in the pharmacy I've realised that there are a lot of first time and experienced moms who might benefit from hints and tips from a pharmacist who can balance healthcare advice with real hands on experience from my important work as a mother of two! I hope to bring you regular advice and information and answer questions that you have! Being a mother and pharmacist are my two favorite things and I'm delighted to have this way of bringing my two worlds together! All questions and queries are gratefully received but otherwise sit back, relax, and let the solutions come to you!