The truth about sunscreen: it’s only 53% effective

A 2012 study found that even SPF 50 only stops about half of the potential sun damage that causes photo-ageing – here’s how we can take care of the other half

Well, the cat’s out of the bag now. After all the decades of effort teaching humans the importance of at the very least wearing sunscreen every day, we get the latest scientific insight: even sunscreen is not enough. This is according to a much-quoted study by Haywood R, Volkov A et al in 2012. What’s more, even antioxidants aren’t quite as effective as we once assumed.

What the study found

Although you most definitely should still wear sunscreen every day, winter or summer, it turns out that sunscreen on its own cannot halt the entire range of sun damage your skin is exposed to every day – remember our post on how the sun and oxygen combine to cause DNA damage in skin.

In short, during thorough and controlled testing, the scientists in this study showed that SPF 50 and antioxidants block only a percentage of the damage from the sun.

That’s the nature of science, we guess. They’re going to make new findings all the time. And, instead of growing despondent or giving up, we should count ourselves lucky that we have access to the latest information, because it helps us formulate better ageing-correction strategies.

Here’s a look at each of the five wavelengths of UV light (sunlight), how it affects your body and how effective sunscreen is at protecting against it:

1. UVC

This is (technically) the most dangerous type of UV light, but thankfully our atmosphere absorbs it, so we don’t come into contact with it on earth. And that’s a good thing, because UVC would kill you very quickly.

  • Wavelength: 200–280 nm (nanometre)
  • Effects on skin: Devastating, deadly – but thankfully absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere
  • Does SPF work? No
  • Do antioxidants work? No

2. UVB

This is the type of UV light most associated with pain and sunburn, and SPF is rather good at keeping it at bay.

  • Wavelength: 280–320 nm
  • Effects on skin: Sunburn, DNA damage and oxidative damage to DNA and molecules
  • Does SPF work? Yes
  • Do antioxidants work? No

3. UVA

This type of UV is most associated with skin ageing, because normal broad-spectrum SPF starts to fail here. From here on out, UV light tends to cause the devastating type of DNA damage known as dimers, which the human body cannot fix on its own, because of a missing type of protein in the human body.

  • Wavelength: 320–400 nm
  • Effects on skin: DNA damage, mutation and cancer due to oxidative damage to DNA and molecules, as well as immune suppression
  • Does SPF work? Only 53%
  • Do antioxidants work? No

4. Visible light

One of the most overlooked, and therefore most dangerous, types of UV light is the radiation in the visible spectrum. Sunscreen affords no protection against it, and it supresses the immune system, causes free radicals to form and causes serious DNA damage. Our best defence against visible light is antioxidants, and they’re only about 54% effective.

  • Wavelength: 400–700 nm
  • Effects on skin: Photo-ageing, mutation and cancer due to DNA damage, oxidative damage to DNA and molecules, as well as immune suppression
  • Does SPF work? No
  • Do antioxidants work? Only 54%

5. Infrared light

And, of course, the invisible infrared light spectrum also affects us adversely. Infrared light from the sun causes severe oxidative stress (which is when free radicals ravage the DNA and body, leading to mutations) and is the most common cause of hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, SPF 50 doesn’t help at all here. And, when SPF is combined with antioxidants, you get only 56% protection.

  • Wavelength: 700nm–1mm (1 million nanometres)
  • Effects on skin: Photo-ageing, hyperpigmentation and oxidative damage to DNA and molecules
  • Does SPF work? No
  • Do antioxidants work? Only 56%

Is there any way of getting 100% protection?

The reason SPF and antioxidants are only around 50% effective is because the sunlight itself inhibits your body’s 80GG-1-enzyme production, which is vital for the body’s inherent DNA-damage-correcting NER systems. Not to mention that NER cannot correct the DNA damage known as the dimer.

So, to get 100% protection, you’d need a single product that contains all of these:

  • SPF 50
  • Antioxidants
  • 80GG-1, to replenish your body’s supply
  • Photolyase, an enzyme capable of correcting dimers

Good news: That product now exists. Lamelle Research Laboratories’ Helase is the first product in South Africa to contain SPF 50 and antioxidants for skin and DNA protection, as well as 80GG-1 and the revolutionary photolyase enzyme for repairing skin DNA (including dimers), even after the damage has already taken place.

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Got a skin, sun, DNA or photo-ageing question, comment or tip? Let’s chat in the comments below.