What happens to your sunscreen throughout a work day? I often get this question, especially from people who work inside for most of the day. A group of researchers at Mahidol University in Thailand did an experiment that may provide us with some guidance.
The researchers took 20 people (15 women) with mostly skin phototype III and up. Skin phototype III means that they tan, but sometimes get mild burns.
The participants were asked to apply 1 gram of sunscreen to their face. The sunscreen was mixed with a blue fluorescent dye that would glow under UV light. This glow allowed the researchers to see the sunscreen on the skin and note changes in its brightness throughout the day.
The people only wore the sunscreen and were asked not to reapply. They weren’t allowed to use makeup or other skincare. They were also allowed up to 1 hour outside. The temperature outside was between 23 and 35 degrees Celsius throughout the day and described as humid. The indoor condition was inside the air conditioned Siriraj Hospital.
Every 2 hours, the researchers took a photo of the people and measured the glow of the sunscreen under a UV light. They looked at the cheeks, forehead, nose, moustache area, and the chin. They used a Visia device to help make sure the photos were consistent.
Sunscreen brightness reduction every 2 hours by percent. The bars indicate the range in measurement values.
The researchers found that the fluorescent glow on the people’s faces decreased the most in the first 2 hours after applying the sunscreen. On average the areas of the face were 16.3% less bright.
Between 2 hours and 4 hours after application, the brightness decreased by a further 7.4 percentage points on average. Between 4 hours and 8 hours, there was an average 4.5 percentage point decrease in brightness.
At the end of the day, there was about a 30% decrease in brightness on average compared to just after applying the sunscreen.
A 30% decrease in brightness in this experiment doesn’t necessarily mean a 30% decrease in sunscreen on the skin. There are ways to model this more accurately, but they did not have the tools in this experiment.
So what does this mean for you? At the end of the day, you’ll still have to use your best judgement.
If you pigment easily, are very concerned about photoaging, or have a family history of skin cancer – I think the best recommendation is to be on the safe side and reapply at least once around 2 hours.
If don’t care that much, consider the opposite, about 70% of the glow from the sunscreen still remained after 8 hours.
In either case, that first application is important. I’d recommend choosing a sunscreen with a high SPF and UVA protection and aiming for a 2 mg/cm² layer. An easy way to make it more likely you’ve applied that amount is to apply your sunscreen in two layers.
Source: Rungananchai, C., Silpa-archa, N., Wongpraparut, C., Suiwongsa, B., Sangveraphunsiri, V., & Manuskiatti, W. (2018). Sunscreen Application to the Face Persists Beyond 2 Hours in Indoor Workers: An Open Label Trial. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 1–14. doi: 10.1080/09546634.2018.1530440