Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Sun Screen Strength
Name: Ron
Status: educator
Age: 50s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999 

A student in the science fair tried sun screen on light sensitive plastic beads... they all turned color, indicating the screen didn't work. Is this a valid test of the strngth of sun screen? Ideas?

What would be the effect if no-sun screen was used. Would the beads change color to a larger extent? What would happen with the beads using lower/higher SBF sunscreens.?

Dr. Myron

What is sun screen trying to filter out? All light, or just (invisible) ultraviolet? What do the beads detect? Only ultraviolet, or visible light?

I think you can answer these questions, and from that answer your original question.

Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.


I assume that the beads were subjected to sunlight and they changed color. These are some possible explanations for the stated observations.

The beads could be visible light sensitive and change color when exposed to visible light. In that case, the observation does not prove anything. The beads could be sensitive to both UV and visible light, in which case, the sun screen could stop the UV and pass the visible. The beads would turn color as a result of the exposure to visible light. No conclusion can be made about sunscreen effectiveness.

If the beads are sensitive only to UV radiation, then we need to ask how sensitive they are. Will they still show a change in color when exposed to the fraction of the UV radiation that passes through the sunscreen?

If the beads are very sensitive, then even low levels of UV radiation could saturate them (i.e., complete the color change). Sunscreens, even the ones with high SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or more, pass some UV radiation and this may be sufficient to show a full color change to the human eye (which is not a good light meter) .

Good luck.

Dr. Ali Khounsary
Advanced Photon Source
Argonne National Laboratory

Sun screen only attenuates light in certain wavelength regions. If the light-sensitive beads respond to a wavelength range the sun screen is not intended to block, then the test results don't say anything about the effectiveness of the sun screen.

Tim Mooney

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory