ThinkSkin explains what SPF actually means — and the difference between your lotions

In a world where the term “alternative facts” is becoming popularized, many people have come to realize the importance of finding reliable information.

Having a credible source for the general population to get information about skin products is the goal of UBC medical residents Dr. Yi Ariel Liu and Dr. Danny Guo, and the motivation behind their website, ThinkSkin. Guo is training to be a dermatologist at UBC, while Liu is in the pathology residency training program.

After Guo completed medical school and his friends learned that he was training to become a fully-licensed dermatologist, they began to ask him questions such as how to make sense of the ingredients in some skin care products and what SPF (Sun Protection Factor) really means.

“While cosmeceutical ingredients play an important role in skin care, there aren’t many opportunities to learn about them during residency,” said Guo. When the idea was still in its infancy, Guo recruited Liu. The two eventually came up with the concept of ThinkSkin and started eagerly planning articles.

The first things that many notice when they visit the website are the illustrations. Long before she decided on a career as a dermatopathologist, Liu was an illustrator. Serving as the medical illustrator and copy editor for ThinkSkin was a perfect fit for her.

Behind the illustrations are cold, hard facts. Guo reviews primary scientific articles as well as academic textbooks to gather information. After his undergrad degree in cell biology and genetics, his master's in experimental medicine and going to medical school, Guo is used to sifting through the scientific literature.

“Health literacy empowers people to engage in active discussions about their health and allows them to make informed decisions such as choosing the right skin products for themselves,” said Liu.

When someone goes to a retail store, they are met with a barrage of moisturizers. In their article “What’s up with moisturizers?” the duo describe that consumers can approach these products by first understanding that most moisturizers can basically be categorized by their relative ratios of water, lipid and emulsifier. Lotions are composed of 80 per cent water, while emulsifiers are 80 per cent lipid.

Many people know that SPF protects from sunburns, but may not be familiar with how it is calculated and what it really means. In their article “What’s up with acronyms in sunscreens?” the pair describe that SPF as a ratio of how long it takes skin to burn with a sunscreen compared to how long it takes without any sun protection. They are quick to point out that SPF relates to protection from UVB radiation but not UVA rays, which are also carcinogenic.

Guo and Liu reinforce that the website is meant to debunk myths, provide reliable scientific information with a casual, conversational manner, but cannot replace seeing a doctor.

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi is chief dermatology resident at UBC and director of communications at Resident Doctors of British Columbia.