When is it best to use a sunscreen with a higher SPF?

Amy K. Kim, MD
Not really. When sunscreens get higher in their SPF, they tend to not feel as cosmetically nice, and if it doesn’t feel nice, someone isn’t going to use it. So, I’d rather you use it.
Sunscreens with an extremely high sun protection factor (SPF) only offer marginally better sunburn protection than high SPF sunscreens. Sunbathers often assume that they get twice as much protection from SPF 100 sunscreen as from SPF 50. In reality, the extra protection is negligible. Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98% of sunburn rays; SPF 100 blocks 99%.
There's another reason to avoid sunscreens with SPF over 50 -- they tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long. Your skin may be protected by UVB rays that cause sunburn, but could leave your skin exposed to damaging UVA rays that cause other kinds of damage.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading” due to the false sense of security that higher numbers impart. But the FDA  has not issued a regulation that carries the force of law.

When used correctly, sunscreen with SPF values in the range of 30 to 50 will offer strong sunburn protection, even for people most sensitive to sunburn. Consumers should avoid sunscreen products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50+ and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of the SPF.
The SPF number indicates the amount of sun exposure needed to cause sunburn on skin protected with sunscreen compared with skin not protected with sunscreen. A higher SPF value will offer more protection than a lower SPF value. For example, an SPF of 30 means it would take a person 30 times longer to burn when wearing sunscreen than the person would without sunscreen.
Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD
When it comes to the SPF level in sunscreen, a higher number doesn't always mean better protection. In this video  dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur explains why.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.