Sun protection factors: world wide confusion

Br J Dermatol. 2009 Nov;161 Suppl 3:13-24. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09506.x.


The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a very popular instrument in the marketing of sunscreens. Unfortunately it is often not understood how sunscreens work and where the limitations of the SPF are. A lot of aspects of the SPF are confusing, e.g. the race for higher and higher numbers, the effect on SPF when less sunscreen is applied and if sunscreen should be used at all because they may block the Vitamin D synthesis. All this has a negative impact on compliance by the consumer or patient which is the most important influence factor in sun protection. This paper explains how sunscreens work, how the SPF is determined and where the limitations of the current methods exist. The dynamic view of 'UV radiation applied' and the 'UV dose transmitted' through the sunscreen onto the skin as well as onto a substrate in vitro help in the understanding and are also promising approaches in the in vitro assessment. A variation of the in vitro assessment of a sunscreen is the in silico calculation based on the absorption spectrum of the UV filters and an assumption about the irregular sunscreen film on the skin. The sunscreen simulator program can be used to determine how the SPF is affected by applying smaller amounts of sunscreen. Besides the SPF, UVA protection is also discussed. The degree of UVA protection determines the quality of the overall UV protection, whereas the SPF is an indication of the quantity of protection. Furthermore other protection factors such as IPF, iSPF, RSF and p53, and the inhibition of the Vitamin D3 synthesis by sunscreens are also discussed. In conclusion it is shown that the accuracy and robustness of the SPF and other Protection Factors will improve significantly with the availability of true broad-spectrum sunscreens rather than conventional UVB-biased sunscreens, because uniform protection profiles lead to protection independent of the action spectrum of the endpoint and the UV-radiation source.

MeSH terms

  • Absorption
  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Consumer Product Safety / standards
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / prevention & control
  • Skin / radiation effects*
  • Skin Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Sunlight / adverse effects*
  • Sunscreening Agents / chemistry*
  • Sunscreening Agents / classification
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects*


  • Sunscreening Agents