Daily sunscreen use is essential for our overall skin health. Not only is too much sun exposure associated with a higher increase in skin cancer, but it contributes to 80-90% of facial skin aging. The majority of people understand how SPF works – the higher the SPF, the more protective the sunscreen is. However, SPF is only a measure of how effective a sunscreen is at blocking UVB rays. So what about UVA rays?
While UVA rays are less associated with skin cancer than UVB rays, they are the biggest contributor to sun-induced premature aging. So how do we know how much UVA protection a sunscreen offers? Which sunscreens have the highest UVA protection? Fear not! For here are the best sunscreens with high UVA protection…
This article is Part 3 of a three-part sunscreen guide. If you’re interested in the science, or if you would like to be directed to sources for this information, please see Parts 1&2.
Part I – The Importance of Sunscreen
Part II – How Is Sunscreen Tested? SPF vs UVAPF
Part III (this article) – The Best Sunscreens With High UVA Protection.
If you’re not particularly interested in the detailed science behind sun damage, how sunscreen works, or how sunscreen protection is measured – here is a (not-so) brief overview…
You can skip the overview by using the table of contents below.
What is UV radiation?
There are three types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation – UVA, UVB, & UVC.
- UVA rays account for the majority (95%) of UV radiation. They have a longer wavelength than UVB and UVC rays which means they have less energy (shorter wavelengths have more energy than longer wavelengths). Due to their longer wavelength, they can penetrate into the dermis which is predominantly made up of collagen (70%). When UVA rays are absorbed by the skin they create free radicals which can damage cells and DNA and break down collagen. This is why UVA rays are highly associated with premature aging. The damage caused by UVA rays is invisible to the naked eye (until years later) and is accumulative.
- UVB rays account for less than 5% of UV radiation and, due to their shorter wavelength, can only penetrate the epidermis. Here, they are directly absorbed by DNA and melanin and can cause genetic mutations that, if not corrected by the cells natural defenses, can lead to the rapid multiplication of mutated cells and eventually result in skin cancer. The damage done by UVB rays can be seen almost immediately in the form of sunburn (an inflammatory response to the skin damage).
- UVC rays are by far the most damaging of the three types of UV rays. However, they are entirely absorbed by the atmosphere due to their short wavelength and, thus, are unable to reach our skin.
For a long time, research focussed purely on UVB rays and the damage that they caused directly to DNA. This led to the production of sunscreens that were able to block UVB rays and reduce sunburn and skin cancer, but the damage from UVA radiation was largely overlooked. More recently, research has begun to highlight how UVA rays indirectly damage DNA through the generation of free radicals.
Does Melanin Protect The Skin From UV Radiation?
Melanin absorbs both UVA and UVB rays (as well as visible light), the more melanin present in the skin, the more UV radiation is absorbed before it can reach the cells nucleus and damage DNA. This is why you get a ‘sun-tan’ when you have spent too much time in the sun. There are three stages to skin tanning:
- Immediate Pigment Darkening (IPD) – an initial and temporary darkening of skin pigment that occurs over a period of minutes-to-days and results from the oxidization of melanin and melanosome redistribution.
- Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) – follows on from IPD but lasts longer (3-5 days) and is more strongly activated by UVA than UVB.
- Delayed Pigment Darkening (DPD) – the last phase of tanning (and what the majority of people know to be a ‘sun-tan’) that is first noticed a couple of days after sun exposure and lasts for at least 3-4 weeks. DPD caused by UVB is a natural protective response (although DPD caused by UVA seems to have no protective mechanism).
Darker-skinned individuals have a higher natural protection from UV-induced DNA damage as more melanin is available to absorb the UV light before it can damage DNA. However, natural melanin alone is not sufficient protection and only offers a maximum of SPF4.
What Is SPF?
SPF stands for sun protection factor and it is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects the skin from UVB radiation. An artificial UV source is used to irradiate skin until there is erythema (minimal erythema dose – MED) with and without sunscreen. SPF is then calculated by dividing the MED of the protected skin by the MED of the unprotected skin (i.e. how long it takes the skin to ‘burn’ with and without sunscreen).
In theory, this means that a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 means that you can be exposed to UV radiation for 50x longer before burning. However, due to the fact that the strength of UVB radiation varies throughout the day (highest around the middle of the day) and the fact that sunscreens lose their effectiveness over time (need to be reapplied every 2 hours), this is not the case.
Most people are pretty familiar with SPF – the higher the SPF, the higher the protection, the longer it would take for skin to burn (if UVB strength was constant).
However, the measurement of UVA protection is a little more confusing. This is because there is currently no international standardized way to measure it (unlike UVB and SPF).
What is UVA-PF?
UVA-PF is similar to SPF in that it is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects the skin from UVA radiation. It is performed in a similar manner – by irradiating the skin (or a plastic slide/sheet) with UVA. This can be done in vivo with human skin (similarly to SPF), or in vitro, where it is performed by applying the sunscreen to an acrylic or plastic (PMMA) slide and measuring how much UVA passes through the slide with or without the sunscreen.
- PPD – as mentioned earlier, PPD stands for persistent pigment darkening which is the second phase of ‘tanning’ and is strongly activated by UVA radiation. The PPD method measures the amount of UVA radiation required to produce the first unambiguous pigmented reaction on protected and unprotected skin. The PPD method appears to correlate well with the in vitroUVA-PF testing.
- PA – The PA UVA rating system is based on the PPD method. Sunscreens are categorised based on their PPD value in the following way:
- PA+ = PPD of 2-4
- PA++ = PPD of 4-8
- PA+++ = PPD of 8-16
- PA++++ = PPD of 16 or more.
- Broad-Spectrum – Broad spectrum is based on the breadth of protection offered by a sunscreen in the UVA and UVB spectrums. In order for a sunscreen to be considered broad-spectrum, it must have achieved a critical wavelength of at least 370nm – meaning that 10% of the protection that the sunscreen offers has to be for wavelengths above 370nm.
- UVA Seal – The UVA seal requires that the UVA-PF of a sunscreen (measured in vivo or in vitro) has to be at least a third of the stated SPF. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF of 50+ (a.k.a. SPF60) has to offer a UVA-PF or PPD of at least The sunscreen also has to have a critical wavelength of at least 370nm.
- SPF 15 = UVA-PF 5
- SPF 30 = UVA-PF 10
- SPF 50 = UVA-PF 16
- SPF 50+ (a.k.a. SPF60) = UVA-PF 20
- The Boots Star Rating System – categorizes sunscreens into groups based on their in vitroUVA-PF measurement compared to their SPF measurement. If UVA protection is 60-80% of its SPF it gets three stars, 80-90% gets four stars, and 90% or more is five stars.
- SPF 30:
- 3 stars = UVA-PF between 18 and 24
- 4 stars = UVA-PF between 24 and 27
- 5 stars = UVA-PF more than 27
- SPF 50:
- 3 stars = UVA-PF between 30 and 40
- 4 stars = UVA-PF between 40 and 45
- 5 stars = UVA-PF more than 45
- SPF 50+ (SPF 60):
- 3 stars = UVA-PF between 36 and 48
- 4 stars = UVA-PF between 48 and 54
- 5 stars = UVA-PF more than 54
- SPF 30:
*Note – please see the comments section as it has been brought to my attention that these calculations may be incorrect and that a sunscreen with SPF50 and 5 Boots Stars may have a UVA-PF of 33 NOT 45 (which would also mean that the other estimates are incorrect)*
Often, you will find that an SPF50 sunscreen has 4 stars, while the same sunscreen in SPF30 has 5 stars. This can, understandably, lead people to believe that the SPF30 sunscreen has more UVA protection than the SPF50. However, you now know that this is not the case.
So, what are some of the best sunscreens with high UVA protection?
The Best Sunscreens With High UVA Protection
From the (not-so) brief overview, you should hopefully feel like you are now able to determine which sunscreens have the best UVA protection (especially if you also read parts I & II of this guide. However, here is a list of some of the best sunscreens with high UVA protection to make your life a little easier (in order from highest to lowest UVA-PF).
Some of these sunscreens also contain antioxidants and/or iron oxides which can further enhance total photoprotection.
Mesoestetic Mesoprotech Melan 130+ Pigment Control
UVA-PF: 67 (as stated by brand)
Active Ingredients: Octocrylene, Homosalate, Tinosorb S, Avobenzone, Titanium Dioxide, Bisoctrizole.
Antioxidants: Yes (RonaCare Ap).
Iron Oxides: Yes
Uriage Bariesun XPCrème SPF50+
UVA-PF: PPD 65 (as stated by brand)
Active Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide (UVA2, UVB), Zinc Oxide (UVA & UVB), Uvinul A Plus (UVA), Octyltriazone (UVB), Bisoctrizole (UVA & UVB)
Antioxidants: Yes (Vitamins C & E)
Iron Oxides: Yes
*Please note that Amazon can sometimes redirect you to a similar sunscreen should the above be unavailable. However, it is only the XP Creme that Uriage state has a PPD of 65*
More Information at Uriage.com
Riemann P20 Suncare For Kids SPF 50+
UVA-PF: Above 50 (As Stated By Brand)
Active Ingredients: Unival A Plus (UVA), Octisalate (UVB), Uvinul T150 (UVB), Tinosorb S (UVA & UVB), Tinosorb M (UVA & UVB), Tinosorb A2B (UVA2, UVB).
Iron Oxides: No
Bioderma Photoderm Sensitive Extreme Milk SPF 50+
Active Ingredients: Tinosorb M (UVA & UVB), Octocrylene (UVA2, UVB), Avobenzone (UVA1), Tinosorb S (UVA & UVB).
Antioxidants: Yes (Vitamin B3/Niacinamide, Vitamin E).
Iron Oxides: No
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50+ Shaka Fluide
UVA-PF: PPD 46
Active Ingredients: Octisalate (UVB), Octyltriazone (UVB), Tinosorb S (UVA & UVB), Avobenzone (UVA1).
Antioxidants: Yes (Vitamin E)
Iron Oxides: No (only in the tinted version)
Bioderma Photoderm Max Crème SPF 50+
Active Ingredients: Octocrylene (UVA2, UVB), Tinosorb M (UVA & UVB), Avobenzone (UVA1), Tinosorb S (UVA & UVB).
Iron Oxides: No
That’s just an example of some of the best sunscreens with high UVA protection. However, sunscreen is not the only way to protect your skin. In addition, to using a sunscreen with high UVA protection, it is important to practice sun-safe behaviors, such as:
- Spending time in the shade, particularly between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm.
- Covering up with appropriate clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
- Applying the correct amount of sunscreen (2mg cm-2– about an ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass, to cover the whole body)
- Reapplying sunscreen regularly (every 2 hours) and after swimming or excessive sweating.