The ‘sun screen’ cosmetics swindle: How make-up products that claim to protect against sun damage can leave you dangerously exposed
False sense of security: Most of us get only a fraction of the protection we think we’re getting from foundation and moisturiser that contain SPF
After months of miserable weather, we’re finally seeing some sunshine, and it’s only natural we want to make the most of it.
Of course, we all know about the dangers of going in the sun without wearing SPF (Sun Protection Factor), but given that most of the time we’re not exactly basking in Sahara-style temperatures, and that pretty much every foundation and moisturiser now seems to contain at least SPF 15, surely we’re protected enough?
The problem is that we’re not. Far from it. In fact, exclusive research for the Daily Mail has shown that, because of the way we apply it, most of us get only a fraction of the protection we think we’re getting from our cosmetics and as a result we are putting ourselves at serious risk of skin damage.
‘The reality is straightforward,’ says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. ‘At least 80 per cent of ageing is due to sun exposure, and the relationship between unprotected sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented.
‘Daily cosmetics simply don’t offer what we need to protect us. Add in the fact that the way we apply them is unlikely to deliver the kind of coverage required to reach the SPF on the label, and the fact they are not designed to adhere to the skin like sunscreens, and you can see why there are concerns.’
So when we apply our SPF 25 foundation in the morning, how much protection are we actually getting?
To find out I turn first to Boots suncare expert, Clare O’Connor. ‘SPF defends the skin from the UVB (ultra- violet-B) rays that cause burning.
‘The SPF number is calculated by looking at how long it takes for skin to go red with the product on, compared to how long it takes for the skin to go red without it.
That is based on a standard application of two milligrams of product per square centimetre of skin,’ she says.
‘When you’re talking about how much product you need to cover the face, this translates to about three millilitres — a blob the size of a £2 coin. To ensure consistent protection throughout the day, you should reapply every two hours.’
I don’t reapply foundation every two hours — who does? — and as the amount I apply is closer to the size of a penny than a £2 coin, I’m fairly sure that despite slapping on a foundation with SPF 25, I’m not getting anything near that.
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Earlier this year, American dermatologist Dr Darrell Rigel presented research that seemed to show a direct relationship between the amount of product you apply and the amount of UVB protection you get.
Using 2 mg of factor 30 lotion per square centimetre of skin means you’ll get SPF 30 protection. But if you apply only half as much you’ll get half the protection (so SPF 15) and so on — applying 0.5 mg to each square centimetre of skin will give you a quarter of the protection, ie an SPF of 7.5.
This is where things start to get scientific. To work out exactly how much sun protection my make-up is giving me, I need to measure the area of my face in square centimetres, then accurately measure how much product I am applying.
The average human face is about 400 cm². To measure mine exactly, I call in skincare expert Nick Miedzianowski-Sinclair at the Cosmetic Imaging Studio near London’s Harley Street.
He uses a sophisticated gadget called the Vectra III to take a 3D image of my face. From this, a computer creates a virtual model of my face and calculates the size of it — 414 cm². That’s 14 cm² bigger than average!
I don’t think I have a huge face, so I’m putting those additional centimetres down to the fact I told Nick to include the section just under my jaw as I apply my foundation there too. With a face this size, I should be using 828 mg of foundation every single day to get SPF 25 protection.
Next, I work out exactly how much I am using to see how far wide of the mark I am. Like most women, I just squeeze a bit out of the bottle and rub it in, not thinking about how much I’ve applied and whether I’m covering every patch of skin.
My foundation, Dior’s DiorSkin Forever SPF 25, has a pump dispenser and I use one press of the pump every day. I’ve no idea if this is enough because, like most cosmetics with an SPF content, there’s nothing on the packet to tell you how much to use for adequate protection.
And, as I don’t know how many milligrams are dispensed per squirt, I need to measure that accurately.
A&D Instruments (aandd-eu.net) supplies high-tech measuring instruments to laboratories around the world and using one of its analytical balances — accurate to a tenth of a milligram — I discover a single pump of my foundation weighs 130 mg.
So in other words, I’m only using about a sixth as much as I should be if I want to ensure I’m getting SPF 25 protection.
At risk: Applying a small amount of foundation or moisturiser with a high SPF won’t offer us any serious protection from the sun
Assuming I apply my foundation evenly, I calculate each square centimetre of my face is getting little more than 0.3 mg of foundation. That means that I’m only getting the protection of an SPF 4, so my chances of getting burnt are significantly increased. And
I’m far more exposed to all the other issues associated with sun damage — everything from wrinkles to skin cancer — than I thought.
But it gets worse. SPFs are calculated on the assumption that people reapply the product every couple of hours. I don’t, so by about 11am, what sort of protection do I have?
‘These days most products are photostable which means that they’re not going to break down following exposure to the sun’s rays,’ says Dr Bunting. ‘But as we touch our face and, in warmer weather, sweat, by the end of the day, or even by lunchtime, most of what we’ve applied in the morning just isn’t there to do its job.’
But what about moisturisers that contain SPF? Surely if I’ve used one of those before putting on my foundation that gives me more protection? Well it does, but not as much as you might think.
‘Don’t assume using SPF 25 twice doubles your protection,’ says Dr Bunting. ‘You can’t get higher protection than the number on the bottle, even if you apply more than the recommended amount. So even if you applied the correct amount of both foundation and moisturiser, you still wouldn’t get more protection than SPF 25.’
I decide to do the same calculations with my moisturiser — Neutrogena Multi-Defence SPF 25. Although the packaging advises I apply it liberally, I put on the amount that I imagine most women do — about a single squirt. According to the analytical balance, that weighs 0.55 mg, which means I’m only getting an SPF of just under 7.
Even with the SPF 4 protection my foundation is giving me, I’m still only getting the equivalent of an SPF 11 (because I’m not getting the maximum SPF from each, it’s valid to add these figures). And this is guaranteed only for the first two hours after I apply it. Far from getting double the protection, I’m getting less than half of it.
Don’t companies that put an SPF rating on their product have a duty of care to provide information on how to use them effectively?
We¿d be far better off getting into the habit of using a high-factor SPF every day and then applying SPF-free make-up on top
Dr Chris Flower of the CTPA, the UK’s cosmetic trade association says no. ‘Cosmetic manufacturers put SPF into products in recognition of the fact that incidental exposure to sunlight can damage skin,’ he says.
‘But this is a secondary function of the product. Consumers aren’t stupid. They know when they’re buying a foundation or a moisturiser that they’re not buying a sun protection product.’
I can see his point. And admittedly although I’ve not been getting the protection I thought, it’s not as if I ever burn, so does it matter?
Yes, says dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams, of London’s European Dermatology Clinic. ‘We only talk about SPF in products, which is an indicator of the protection you get from UVB light that burns skin. But suncare products also contain protection from UVA, the type of light that doesn’t burn but penetrates more deeply and is thought to be a key factor in skin ageing and skin cancer.
‘If you’re not getting the SPF you thought you were, your UVA protection is also reduced.’
So what’s the answer? I now know I should be applying around six times more foundation and re-applying it every two hours.
This would cost a small fortune — I get through a bottle of foundation in about six months. But if I were to apply six times as much and reapply it every couple of hours,
I’d be buying a bottle every week. And that’s just not realistic.
Another solution could be to apply less of a higher SPF product. The fact remains it’s time we stopped kidding ourselves that slapping on a small amount of foundation or moisturiser with an SPF of 25 is going to offer us any serious protection. It’s like trying to bandage a broken leg with a sticking plaster.
We’d be far better off getting into the habit of using a high-factor SPF every day and then applying SPF-free make-up on top.
Equally, cosmetics companies need to stop luring us into a false sense of security by adding a token sunscreen to their formulations. Adding sunscreen costs money, and that cost is inevitably passed on to the consumer.
At the moment, we’re paying over the odds for a benefit that we’re not getting — and thinking that we are could be doing serious damage to our skin.