What Does SPF Even Mean? Here's The Level Of Protection You Should Actually Be Using

The weather is finally starting to warm up, and I could not be happier. Soon it will be time for summer dresses, tank tops, bikinis... and proper sun protection, of course. But what does SPF really mean? Cute floppy hats, sunnies (although eye protection is good year-round), and good 'ole sunscreen offer up protection from those UV rays. Now that sunscreen levels range anywhere from four to 100+, how do you know what level you should be using?

It seems like as the SPF number increases, the protection should proportionally increase too, right? But that's not actaully the case. First of all, different levels block different percentages of UVB rays. Whereas an SPF 15 will block about 94 percent of UVB rays, doubling the SPF to 30 will block 97 percent; that's only a 3 percent increase for what would seem like a doubled dose. As the SPF increases after that, the percentages only slightly increase, but never reach 100 percent, according to Web MD. In other words, there's not a significant difference between using an SPF 50 and SPF 70, and neither will provide much more protection than an SPF 30. Although these percentages are universally how SPFs work, the protection value is still somewhat dependent on your skin type. That is, SPF levels are also a measure of how long it would take to burn compared to how long it would take to burn without a protectant. So if it normally takes you 20 minutes to burn, an SPF 15 should allow you to go 300 minutes before burning. BUT... this is not to say that it is safe to go 300 minutes in the sun before reapplying. At all.

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On a day-to-day basis, an SPF 15 is usually sufficient. However, for prolonged exposure to the sun, or if you expect to sweat or swim, an SPF 30 is better. Of course, no matter how high an SPF you choose to wear, for optimal efficacy, it is still important to reapply every couple hours (or even every 60-80 minutes if you are exposed to water or sweat). Just because you use an SPF 70 does not mean you won't be burned if you spend a full day in the sun without reapplying.

And because the majority of sunscreens include the same FDA-approved ingredients, and it's a product that is generally used up quickly, high-end ones won't necessarily work better or be worth the price. So if you're looking to save a little money on your summer beauty routine, here are the sunscreens to try that won't break the bank.

Left to right: Sun Bum Sunscreen Spray SPF 15, $16, ulta.com; Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock, $11, ulta.com; Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Clear Mist Spray Sunscreen SPF 15, $10, ulta.com; Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30, $11, ulta.com

Images: May Prodrigo/Flickr; Giphy (1); Courtesy Brands