The Sunscreen Smokescreen

Monday, July 11th, 2011

It started with a question. It always does. This time, the question was simple: How much sunscreen should I wear?

I’m a pale geek who burns. I wanted to know the optimal. A simple question with a simple answer, right?


This simple question took me on a massive journey through the data, information myths and misinformation that surround our perception of sunscreen. I’m calling it the Sunscreen Smokescreen.

All our data, calculations and references here:

The Sunscreen SmokeScreen - Information Is Beautiful - David McCandless

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Show Comments ( )

  • Marius

    Hello. Good job on this inforgraphics, really simple yet informative.

  • Andrew Watkins

    I’d like to see an additional piece of information on this graphic – the number fo 44-gallon drums full of sunscreen produced each year – that end up in our ecosystem (rivers, ocean).

  • Grégoire


    Great job !

    Only one thing bothers me so far (I’ve watch this image only 5 minutes) : the color of “optimal” on “how much sunscreen should I wear ?” is the same as “not enough sunscreen” in “protection time”… It seems odd to me.

  • bob Rafelson


  • Andrew

    Image disappeared from yesterday! Tried two different browsers.
    Please check.

  • amy

    Am I an idiot? I don’t see an image.

  • yieks!

    where’s the image? i saw it a few days ago and now it’s gone(?)

    • miriam

      should be back now…

  • Hans

    Hi David,

    the Star system seems to be used only in the UK and (limitedly) in the US.

    So we in continental Europe (unfortunately) only have the EU UVA sign. (see ) Maybe you can add to the “Protection Times” table, where the UVA sign would need to go. (As I understand, that’s different for different SPFs)

    Thanks and by the way: It’s an excellent graphic. Keep up the good work!


    • Sundance

      This “free sharing” of ifonramtoin seems too good to be true. Like communism.

  • Carrot

    Nice. But the sun-is-good part is kinda irrelevant. Sun is bad; warmth is good.

  • Jason

    Didn’t this graphic originally have a section on it about the chemicals? I think it was three circles with the names of chemicals in the middle? Did the picture change or was I imagining things?

    • miriam

      Hi Jason,

      Yes it did – you weren’t imagining things! There was a section called ‘Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer?’ We removed it, after a review of the Environmental Working Group’s evidence (pending our conclusion but it looks like junk science). See our change log here, or you can also look at some further references on the ‘errata’ tab in the data sheet for this graphic (NB this is a work in progress!):

      Researcher, Information is Beautiful

  • Matthew Spool

    Also didn’t address the question of “does any SPF over 30 give you additional protection?”

  • eXtreme

    One more thing is UV can go through yr clothes

  • Sandi Covell

    Thanks for the valuable info. The US apparently does not use the star system for UVA. I have a new bottle of Banana Boat Sport Performance Dry Protect (spf 50) with “AvoTriplex High UVA.” Do you know how AvoTriplex translates to the UVA star system you describe? How does this rate in terms of UVA blocking effectiveness?

  • Thomas Emmerson

    When I forwarded this to my sister she said

    ‘I’m not convinced that the statement that UVA ages skin while UVB tans/burns is as clear cut as the authors make out – the experiment we did recently was just UVB irradiation and we saw substantial damage to the dermal network of fibres, which is a major contributor to extrinsic skin ageing’

    Great work regardless.

  • Breki Tomasson

    I’d also really like to see something regarding Vitamin D on this picture. The sun is still our best way of getting Vitamin D, and sunscreen blocks that from happening. It’s the most common deficiency in the world right now, with more than half the population of Europe and North America considered deficient. The ‘old wisdom’ of applying the sunscreen 15 minutes after entering the sun is still the best tip if you want to stay healthy. Vitamin D is far more important and prevents more bad things than the tiny risk of getting an easily removable and practically non-lethal skin cancer (1.7% mortality rate, and that’s only due to people not checking it up or having it removed).

  • Carl Nelson

    All this nice information, but one thing missing – how about a chart showing “usage of sunscreen”. I’m sure we’d see a nice increase throughout the years, possibly looking about the same as the “melanoma incidents rates” charts.

    And maybe an ‘average vitamin D blood level’ can be made, and might show a chart that is inverse to the other two…

    Not to say that there is a direct correlation of course, but it’s something to consider!

  • Taylor

    I really like this! It left me with two questions though.

    I thought I finally understood SPF, but then I scroll down and see EU SPF VS. US SPF. Now I’m more confused. Is the American system similar? And is the time how long it will protect you after you put it on or once your body starts getting hit by sunlight?

    Also, sunscreen advice always seems to be aimed at people going to the beach. As someone who is out in the sun for five to ten minutes at a time repeatedly throughout the day, do I need sunscreen? And if so should I still be applying as much sunscreen and reapplying as often?

    Well, I think I have more questions now than the chart answered, but that’s a good thing. It’s inspired me to think more about sunscreen at least.

  • Team Building Muggsy

    Thiose rising melanoma figures for the UK are scary- i work outside a lot and just try and keep as covered up as possible. Still, even covered in sun cream I still get burnt if I’m working outside from 6 am to 6pm. You just can’t avoid it.

  • d

    old people die during the winter because its cold, not because they don’t get sun

  • David

    I’ll try that again:

    Near the end of the article it states:

    20 minutes of daily sunlight (without sunscreen) gives you a healthy dose of Vitamin D essential for health.

    This is VERY subjective. Where I live, Johannesburg, South Africa, sitting outside at midday in summer for 20 minutes would yield a rather ripe tomato. I don’t wanna be a tomato.

  • Rhonda Sparks

    Thank you for taking the time to create this informative visual. I lost my 32-year-old husband to skin cancer so I know all too well the effects the sun can play on a person’s body. The awareness you are bringing is wonderful.

  • kevin

    Also didn’t address the question of “does any SPF over 30 give you additional protection?”

  • Phoenix Transportati

    The graphs in this article are really useful. I probably need gobs of sun screen. Good post, thanks.

  • Ken Mackle

    First, I have to say this site is amazing. You guys are smarter then the average person.

    I live in sunny Florida and I am light skined so this study helped me. I now know a little more about SPF.