SPF 50. Oh Yeah?

18 Feb

Remember when the highest sun protection factor on the market was 8?

God, I’m old.

Factor 15, when it came in during the 80s, was the ne plus ultra of sun protection. In fact, you could still get those coconut oil sprays that actually intensified the rays, creating the perfect BacoFoil roast.

Picking up kids’ suncream ahead of our flight to Asia, the basic entry-level SPF in my basic entry-level shop was 50. Which seems, to my untutored eye, to do pretty much what SPF 8 did back in the 80s.

Is this some great leap in technology? Have we destroyed the ozone layer so completely that ten minutes of sun today is equivalent to an hour back in the 80s? Or are the manufacturers completely taking the piss?

My money’s on the third.

As a sallow Anglo-Franco-Polish-Romany-whatever hybrid taking a son whose Celtic DNA blazes out of his luminous skin and is embellished in every freckle on a substantially tropical and subtropical world trip, I have an interest in this.

And, as my previous includes knocking out copy for an “ethical” beauty company, I’ve got more understanding than I would like on how the process works.

So, I turned to the pack, saying a quiet thank-you that I didn’t have to write it, and sending out my most heartfelt fellow feelings to whichever poor sod did.

Without giving too many secrets away, in beauty marketing the words go back and forth between the marketers, the writers and the lawyers (the scientists only get a look-in when it gets ugly).

The marketers have a list of claims the product was created to fulfil.

These tend to be completely unachievable, as the scientists well know.

The claims (unachieved) are passed through to the writers, who try to make the product sound as super-duper as possible. There ensues weeks of painful back and fro between the writers and the marketers, before the text reaches the lawyers.

The lawyers, in their lawyerly way, try and make the copy broadly true, or at least litigation-proof. (Where I worked, the writers kept a book of claims the lawyers had let slip through on previous occasions and waved it in their faces when they defended truth.)

The end result?

Those well-known synonyms for “looks like”.

“Visible results”, “reduces the appearance of…”, “increases the look of…”, “women found that x was visibly improved.” And the occasional piece of brazen bullshit when the lawyers had a temp in or a big night out the evening before.

In the case of sun protection creams, this creative process results in a laboratory wishlist that few parents could possibly comply with without initiating World War III and blasting their baggage allowance.

To achieve Factor 50 sun protection, whereby each hour spent in the sun with this magic lotion results in just over a minute’s actual exposure, one has to meet the following conditions:

*Keep child out of sun between 11am and 3pm.
*Apply at least every 1-2 hours.
*Apply liberally — at least 20ml to “a small child”s body.
*And here is the kicker. Apply every time after swimming or towelling.

Let us assume that the child wakes early, and spends his or her time in full sun, until the witching hour of 11am, playing quietly in his or her room for the four hours until the nasty sun is lower in the sky.

Let us also assume that the child does not swim often throughout the day, and therefore does not require too much towelling.

Between 7am and 11am, and 3pm and 6pm, the good mother will apply at least 100ml of SPF 50, in five liberal helpings, swimming not included.

Should the child swim, the good mother will (at least) double this.

So a family with three children will get through at least 600ml of sun cream a day, or more than 8 litres over the course of a fortnight’s holiday. Not to mention an extra 8 or 9 kilos on their baggage allowance.

And, at roughly £15 for 500ml, they’d spend around two hundred and fifty squid on suncreams alone.

Talk about a license to print money.

Not to mention a license for discord.

The good mother not only has to persuade the little ones to stay out of the sun for four hours. She has to persuade them to stand still and undergo cream application on ten separate occasions outside those hours.


Should she achieve this — and I’d really love to hear from someone who has, although we probably wouldn’t be best beach buddies – she will be rewarded.

Her progeny will experience the effects of less than ten minutes of UV rays after seven fun-packed hours in the sunshine.

Alternatively, of course, she can slap it on as and when she feels the need, let’s say three to four times a day, but not too liberally. And, lo!, her children will have a sun protection factor of approximately 8.

Just like we did, with (I reckon) exactly the same chemicals, back in the 80s.

The highest SPF I’ve seen is 150. If the blurb on the back is to be believed, dutiful application will result in a day’s sun leaving all the impact of a mere three minutes’ exposure.

I can say, from personal experience, that there will have been high-fives in the writing department when that one got through.

And, full kudos to the legal department, that neat, and nigh-on invisible, “at least” means that should, heaven forfend, the product not work, nobody is liable. Because it said “at least every 1-2 hours”, right?

Time for a repeat of the Penelope Cruz-L’Oreal mascara scandal?

Or just time to do what our parents did, and equip our kids with long-sleeved shirts for swimming?

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2 Responses to “SPF 50. Oh Yeah?”

  1. Lorelei Ayres March 5, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    I don’t get it

    • MummyT March 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

      I think the point I was trying to make is that SPF, sun protection factor, which is widely quoted on sun lotions in many places in the world is essentially meaningless, because the requirements one has to meet to achieve the desired SPF are so stringent (on the one hand) and open-ended (where it matters) that it is nigh-on impossible to achieve it outside laboratory conditions. Which most beaches and parks are not.

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