What Does UPF50+ Really Mean?

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Sun Protection Factor (SPF). Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). Unidentified Flying Object…

Ok, so we all know what that last one means, and it’s got nothing to do with swimwear (although our rash vests are definitely out of this world!).

But what about SPF and UPF? These acronyms get spoken about a lot, and whilst we tend to know they’re a good thing, do we really know why that’s the case? At INK, we know our stuff inside and out – so here’s what you need to know about sun protection!

What are UV rays?

UV rays, or ultraviolet radiation, are the reason you tan (or the reason you get sunburnt when you take things too far) Found naturally in sunlight, UV rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation. The sun sends electromagnetic radiation to the Earth in different waves and frequencies and together, all these different wavelengths make up the electromagnetic spectrum.

On this spectrum, UV rays are between visible light and X-rays. You’ll sometimes hear people speak about UVA or UVB, and that’s because there are three types of UV rays.

  • UVA, or near UV
  • UVB, or middle UV
  • UVC, or far UV

UVC has very short waves and is mostly absorbed by the ozone layer, meaning it doesn’t reach earth. However, UVB has medium waves and UVA has long waves. Both can get past the ozone layer and enter the earth’s atmosphere, causing damage to your skin if you’re not sun-smart.

95% of the UV radiation that enters the earth’s atmosphere is UVA radiation – so, we are all going to be exposed to a fair amount of it during our lifetimes. The intensity of UVA rays stays roughly the same no matter what time of the day it is, and they can penetrate through clouds and window glass. UVA penetrates the skin a lot deeper than UVB and is partly why some of us experience premature aging or ‘photoaging’. This is when unwanted wrinkles, leathery skin, and pigmentation show up after you’ve spent lots of time in the sun; unprotected. Scientists used to think that UVA only caused fairly superficial problems like wrinkles, but now they know that UVA does contribute and may even be the initial cause of skin cancer.

Us Aussies often get told that we should stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day, which here is from 11AM until 3PM. This is largely due to the presence of UVB rays. Unlike UVA, the intensity of UVB rays will change depending on the time of day and season. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn, and they play a big part in the development of skin cancers.

This is why we hear the most about UVA and UVB rays – because they can potentially cause us skin damage.

What is SPF?


SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. You’ll usually see SPF written on your chosen tube of sunscreen, followed by a number. This is alerting you to how much protection from the sun that blend of sunscreen has to offer. While all sunscreens vary in their ability, their main goal is to protect our skin from UVB and UVA rays.

We tend to misunderstand how SPF works. It turns out that there is a bit of maths involved, so stay with us here!

SPF indicates the length of time your skin is protected from sunburn, depending on your skin type. Say you have extremely fair skin, and start to burn after about 5 minutes in the sun. SPF 30+ sunscreen would protect you for 30 x the 5 minutes it takes for your to burn (so 150 minutes in total).

It can take anywhere between 5 - 30 minutes before you start to get sunburnt, depending on your location, the time of year and your skin type. If you’re someone who sweats a lot, if you don’t apply your sunscreen 30 minutes beforehand, if you towel dry yourself off - this will affect the amount of sun protection you have. That’s why it's important to keep reapplying your sunscreen at least every two hours

In 2012, us Australian’s lifted our standards. No, we didn’t all stop dating people that were bad for us - instead, we upped the maximum protection that sunscreen can offer from SPF 30+ to SPF 50+. SPF30+ filters out about 96.7% of UVB, whilst SPF50+ combats about 98% of UVB radiation. Granted, the difference is small, but who really wants to be exposed to more radiation than necessary?

What is UPF?

UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. It is a system used to rate the level of protection provided by sun protective fabrics, and it’s sort of the new kid on the block. SPF is a much older rating system, it’s been around since the early 1970s helping us to measure sun protection. But UPF standard was established in Australia in 1996. It signifies protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.

UPF measures the how much of the sun’s radiation is absorbed by the fabric that you’re wearing or, the converse, how much radiation will actually make it through the fabric and reach your skin. If you’re wearing a rashie that offers 50+ UPF, then only 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation will be able to reach your skin.

Reaching for swimwear, or any type of clothing, that offers UPF makes a lot of sense because our clothes are our first line of defense from the sun’s rays. So, how does UPF fabric work? Normal fabric, the kind you’d find in a plain white cotton t-shirt for example, is made from thousands of tiny fibres woven together. If you looked at this fabric under a microscope, you’d be able to see loads of tiny spaces between all the fibres. These spaces aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they allow UV radiation room to pass through and reach your bare skin. Some materials will absorb some of this radiation, and if they are tightly woven, this further reduces the chances the radiation has of reaching your skin. A thin white cotton shirt has the UPF rating of about 5, meaning 1/5th of of the sun’s radiation can pass through it. A rash vest that’s comprised from polyester and spandex, however, can have a 50+ UPF rating because these materials are tightly woven and absorb the radiation.

The colour of your clothing also has an impact on its UPF. Dark colours absorb more of the sun’s radiation than lighter colours of the same material. But that doesn’t mean we all have to be all doom and gloom! Bright, vibrant colours like reds absorb a substantial amount of radiation - which is good news for all the vivid guys and girls out there.

Skin Cancer Factors

‘I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.’

The iconic Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar is famed for her love of this sunburnt country and, although she definitely wasn’t referring to skin cancer, she unknowingly hit the nail on the head.

Unfortunately, we truly ARE a sunburnt country. It is thought we can attribute 95% of our melanomas to overexposure to UV radiation. The Cancer Council suggests that roughly 2 out of 3 Australians will have been diagnosed with skin cancer at some point by the time they reach 70 years of age. Our incidences of skin cancer are amongst the highest in the world, 2-3 times greater than our friends who live in Canada, the USA or the United Kingdom.

There are three main types of skin cancer, these being

  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma - the most dangerous type of skin cancer and probably the one you’ve heard of the most at your doctor’s surgery 

Aside from any genetic factors or your specific skin type, the following are major factors in determining whether you will have to deal with skin cancer in your lifetime.

Sunburn & Exposure to UV Radiation

Every time you act the fool and get sunburnt, you’re increasing your chances of developing skin cancer. Even if you don’t get sunburnt, regular exposure to the sun’s radiation adds up. So, no excuses for not wearing your rashie just because it's a cloudy day.

Tanning

You’re much better off getting your tan out of a bottle than by baking in the sun. Getting a tan from lying in the sun means that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation to change the colour of your skin. This change in colour? It’s not a sign of good health, it’s a sign of sun damage.  

If you do opt for a spray tan, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re suddenly protected from the sun. You still need to put on sunscreen and wear UPF clothing. A fake tan may look good, but it makes no difference to the sun.

Solariums

In 2016, all commercial solariums were banned in Australia. This wasn’t done for no reason. This ban was put into effect because solariums emit both UVA and UVB rays and these are what cause skin cancer. While solariums are legal overseas and remain overseas, there is definitive proof that using them increases your risk of developing skin cancer. Stay well away from them my sun-safe friends!

Sun Safety Tips

Skin cancer is certainly a scary topic, but there are so many things you can do to be sun safe.  If you get in the habit of making sun safety a priority, you’ll be taking care of your health without even realising it.

  • Put on your sunscreen at 20 - 30 minutes before you plan to be in the sun. This gives the formula time to set. If you’ve ever slapped on some sunscreen and then immediately jumped in the pool, you’ve probably seen a slight film surrounding you in the water. That film is the sunscreen sliding right off you because it hasn't yet had the chance to set and stick to your skin. Sunscreen is no good to anyone if it's just floating around you in the water, so give it a chance to get to work!
  • Reapply your sunscreen every two hours. Sweat and general activity will cause your sunscreen to come off, so reduce your risk of sunburn and be sure to top up.
  • Wear UPF clothing that covers you as much as possible.
  • Seek out the shade when possible. You’re better off having your picnic under a shady tree than out in the blazing sun.

All the science, statistics and acronyms behind sun safety can be overwhelming, but if you break things down step by step  it’s not as complicated as it sounds. You’ll find SPF in your sunscreen. You’ll find UPF in sun protective swimwear. And you’ll find the INK in WATER fam at the beach, living it up in a sun-safe manner!

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