Sunscreen Smackdown II: Battle of the SPF50s

August 17, 2014

After my last big sunscreen comparison review (read here), I uncovered another hidden stash of sunscreen samples #neverending. Interestingly, these are all rated SPF50 and above! I used to think SPF15 was sufficient #naive. But it seems there is a prevailing trend to chase after higher SPF ratings, in the hopes of preserving our youthful fair skin. So today, I’m going to introduce you to 5 sun protection lotions / potions that have been rated the highest in the land. However, before we jump to it, I’d like to discuss some finer points of sun protection that are often misunderstood. Indulge me a little, and let’s meander since it’s the weekend!

Myth #1: The higher the SPF, the better it is!

Sun Protection Factor (or SPF in short) is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays blocked, i.e. SPF15 means 1/15 of burning radiation will reach the skin. What this means is, there is no such thing as “total” blocking, but merely delaying how long before a person develops a sunburn. If it normally takes you 10 minutes to develop a burn when not wearing any sun protection, SPF15 will keep sunburn away for 15 x 10 minutes = 150 minutes. Until recently, SPF30 was the maximum allowable by US FDA, which in essence blocks 97% of the sun’s rays; but was recently raised to SPF50 (i.e. blocks 98% of sun’s rays). As you can see, despite the big number jump from SPF30 to SPF50, the increase in protection is marginal.

Myth #2: SPF 50 is the new standard

Unfortunately (or fortunately) most of us live in areas with sun for more than 2 hours a day, in which case SPF15 does not seem sufficient. However, it is important to note that the active ingredients in sunscreens (especially chemical blockers) degrade under sun, and therefore it is necessary to reapply every 2 hours. By that token, unless you burn extremely quickly (under 10 minutes) or easily, a rating higher than SPF15 is useless. Physical blockers (titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide) fare better as they do not degrade under sun, but they do get washed off with sweat and especially if you are swimming or in water.

Myth #3: A higher SPF will keep my skin fair and youthful

SPF rating is an incomplete measure of the impact of the sun’s rays. Conventional sunscreens block very little UVA and UVB radiation – UVA causes wrinkles and skin aging, and UVB causes skin cancer. As such, it is important to look for sun screens with broadspectrum protection. There are 2 mainstream rating systems to address these: (1) the star rating system (5 being the best, 3 the least); and (2) the PA system (PA+++ being the maximum) measures only UVA protection.

Myth #4: The more products with SPF I use, the more sun protection I get

This is perhaps the most common myth, and so untrue. Layering SPF products do not result in a combined effect, i.e. SPF15 + SPF15 does not = SPF30! In fact, you may end up with less than SPF15! The reason is because some ingredients degrade other ingredients, resulting in less protection overall. For example, uncoated titanium dioxide or zinc oxide have the potential to degrade avobenzene. It gets really unwieldy when you have to examine the ingredients of each and every product, and so generally it is recommended to use 1 sunscreen product, and not layer with others.

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Now that we have greater understanding of what we’re really paying for, and putting on our faces…. Let’s take a look at 5 “high protection” (by which I mean they are labeled as SPF50 and above) sunscreens.

Kose Sekkisei Sun Protect Essence Gel SPF50 PA++++

Kose Sekkisei Sun Protect Gel SPF50This is one of the latest sunscreens from Japanese beauty giant Kose, features a lightweight water-based texture. It is truly non-sticky, but despite the “gel” descriptor it is really just a fluid sun screen, albeit one of the lightest sun screen I have ever encountered at this SPF level.

Kose Sekkisei Sun Protection Gel swatch

Kose Sekkisei Sun Protect Essence Gel contains Oriental plant for some nice skincare benefits – Coix Seed to prevent skin roughness, Angelica for disinfection and moisturizing properties, Melothria for whitening, and Peach leaf for anti-inflammatory effects.

It does feel nice, and smells good too. However, I am usually apprehensive about any true skincare benefits in non-skincare products as the amount of effective ingredients is minimal. Also, do note that the maximum rating is PA+++ (3 +’s), the 4th + in this product is purely for marketing purposes, and does not indicate this product has greater UVA protection than others in the PA+++ range.

Kose Infinity Deep Protection UV SPF50 PA++++

Infinity Kose Deep Protection UV  SPF50

The other sunscreen product from Kose, the Infinity Deep Protection UV draws from Kose’s Infinity skincare range, and features the whitening agent Kojic acid. This is touted to be able to penetrate deep into the skin to crush spot-creating melanin, and thereby preventing spots formation. There are also some nice moisturizing and antioxidant ingredients in here – squalane, aloe leaf extract, etc.

Kose Infinity Deep Protection UV swatch

The product itself has a fluid texture, although it felt slightly thicker than the Sekkisei Sun Protect Essence Gel, in the greater scheme of things it is relatively lightweight for the amount of sun protection it affords. However, I was disheartened to find that this was achieved by the use of chemical blockers, which I personally prefer to avoid.  The particular ingredient is Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate which has a EWG hazard score of 6 (moderate).

Giorgio Armani Luminessence Bright UV Protecting Fluid SPF50 PA+++

Giorgio Armani Luminessence Bright UV Protecting Fluid SPF50

As with all Giorgio Armani makeup, the Luminessence Bright UV Protecting Fluid is love at first swatch for me.  It has a denser texture than either of the Kose sunscreens featured above, but it applies easily and is very comfortable to wear.  What sets this apart for me is the brightening effect and matte finish it renders, making this the perfect base for makeup.  It also contains mint and jasmine extracts to soothe the skin, corn extract and amino acids to combat ageing.

Giorgio Armani Luminessence Bright UV Protecting Fluid swatch

I couldn’t find the exact ingredient list for this product, and the sample I have on hand does not have the ingredients printed on the back.  But judging from the similar BB cream from the same Luminessence range also with SPF50, it seems likely this sunscreen may be using a mixture of titanium dioxide (physical blocker) and Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (chemical blocker similar to the one in Kose Infinity Deep Protect UV above).  If so, that would be a pity… but anybody with better information please let me know!  I would say, check this one out for yourself before buying or dismissing it completely. 

Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily UV Defense SPF50 PA+++

Kiehl's ultimate uv shield spf50

Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily UV Defense SPF50 has a huge crowd of devotees and I can understand why. This is perhaps not the lightest in texture if compared against the Japanese ones, but certainly very pleasant and easy to use.  It was also one of the earliest mass marketed sun screens with a high SPF50 PA+++ rating.

Kiehls Ultra Light Daily UV Defense swatch

 

As with all Kiehl’s products, this is fragrance-free, oil-free and colorant-free, which is nice for finnicky people like me.  This is a no-nonsense basic sunscreen, which again is nice as you are not forced to pay a premium for ephemeral skincare benefits.  Kiehl’s also employs their proprietary chemical blockers – Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL.  Although I’m generally averse to chemical blockers, these come with a very low EWG hazard score of 2, which is on par with physical blockers, and these do not degrade as much when exposed to the sun.  Consequently, you get a nice elegant texture, enduring sun protection, and minimal health threat.

3Lab Perfect Sunscreen SPF50 PA+++

3Lab Perfect Sunscreen SPF55

3Lab is one of those brands that I always associate with high end skincare… much coveted, not mass marketed, etc.  As such, I had really high hopes for this sample… and they say the higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment.  In addition to the high sun protection it affords, 3Lab Perfect Sunscreen promises anti-aging benefits through the inclusion of Acai fruit (antioxidant to combat free radical damage), green tea extract (anti-inflammatory), mulberry extract (fights skin discoloration), portulaca extract (calms skin), vitamin E (repairs), and adenosine (increases DNA and protein synthesis, and tissue repair).

3Lab Perfect Sunscreen swatch

The product itself is a thick fluid, which is not bad for its SPF55 rating, but it was the heaviest out of the 5 being compared today.  Also, a quick word on the SPF55 rating… this is technically not allowed by US FDA regulations, and I noticed there is a similar product being marketed now with an SPF50 rating so perhaps it has been corrected for the US market.  I did not enjoy this quite as much as the others as it felt oily on my skin, and did not layer well with my makeup.  More importantly, it relies heavily on chemical sun screens – Homosalate 10.0% Octisalate 5.0% Avobenzone 3.0% Octocrylene 2.6%… all with moderate to low levels of toxicity.

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This batch of sunscreens seemed to employ chemical blockers more than the previous batch that I had reviewed, and my guess is this is due to the higher sun protection that they offer.  In general, chemicals are able to give higher protection whilst retaining a light texture.  However, as we have seen at the beginning of this article, a higher SPF rating does not necessarily translate into better coverage.  It is important to pick a sunscreen based on your lifestyle and intended activity.  Personally, I think SPF30 with an easy light fluid texture is sufficient for my mainly indoors lifestyle, and only if I am going to be out and about in the  sun for protracted period of time will I look for higher ratings.  And out of the 5 reviewed here, my favorite is quite possibly the Giorgio Armani Luminessence Bright UV Protecting Fluid, followed by Kose Sekkisei Sun Protect Gel.  Regardless of which you choose, be sure to remove thoroughly at the end of the day with a makeup remover and cleanser.

xoxo