Sender Policy Framework (SPF) Explained | The Ultimate Guide

sender policy framework (SPF) explained

Introduction to SPF

In the email security world, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) has emerged as a crucial protocol for safeguarding email communication. As email spoofing and phishing attacks continue to pose significant threats to individuals and organisations alike, implementing SPF has become a necessity rather than an option. This article will delve into the intricacies of SPF, exploring its definition, importance, and role in fortifying email security.

What is Sender Policy Framework?

sender policy framework (SPF) explained

Sender Policy Framework, or SPF policy, is an email authentication protocol designed to detect and prevent email spoofing. It verifies that the email server sending a message is authorised to send emails on behalf of the domain it claims to be from. SPF allows domain owners to specify which IP addresses or servers can send emails from their domain, making it harder for spammers and fraudsters to impersonate legitimate email senders.

Why is SPF important for email security?

The significance of SPF in email security cannot be overstated. By implementing SPF, domain owners can protect their reputations and prevent their domain from being used maliciously. Some of the key benefits of SPF include:

  1. Reducing email spoofing: SPF makes it more difficult for attackers to send emails that appear to come from a trusted domain, thus minimising the risk of successful phishing attempts and other email-based scams.
  2. Improving email deliverability: When receiving mail servers see that an email has passed SPF authentication, they are more likely to consider it legitimate, reducing the chances of the email being marked as spam or rejected outright.
  3. Enhancing domain reputation: Domain owners can maintain a positive reputation by demonstrating a commitment to email security and taking proactive measures to prevent abuse. This will improve email deliverability and increase trust among recipients.
  4. Compliance with industry standards: Many industries have specific requirements for email authentication, and implementing SPF can help organisations meet these standards and avoid potential penalties or legal issues.

As we explore the various aspects of SPF throughout this article, you’ll understand how this protocol works, how to implement it effectively, and the best practices to follow for optimal email security.

How SPF Works

Understanding SPF’s underlying mechanisms and components is essential for understanding its functionality. In this section, we’ll break down the basics of SPF authentication, examine the syntax and structure of SPF records, and explore DNS’s crucial role in the SPF ecosystem.

The basics of SPF authentication

At its core, SPF authentication involves comparing the IP address of the email sender with the list of authorised IP addresses specified in the domain’s SPF record. When receiving an email, the receiving mail server performs an SPF check by querying the DNS for the sending domain’s SPF record. If the sender’s IP address matches one of the authorised IP addresses listed in the SPF protocol, the email passes SPF authentication. If not, the email fails SPF authentication, and the receiving server may choose to reject or flag the message as potentially fraudulent.

SPF record syntax and components

An SPF record is a specially formatted DNS TXT record that contains information about which IP addresses or servers are allowed to send emails on behalf of a domain. The SPF record consists of a series of directives and mechanisms defining the domain’s authorised email sources.

SPF mechanisms

SPF mechanisms are the building blocks of an SPF record. They define how the receiving mail server should handle the email based on the sender’s IP address. Some common SPF mechanisms include:

  • “all”: Matches any IP address not explicitly listed in the SPF record.
  • “ip4” and “ip6”: Specify individual IPv4 or IPv6 addresses or CIDR ranges that are authorised to send emails.
  • “a” and “mx”: Allow emails from IP addresses associated with the domain’s A or MX records.
  • “include”: References another domain’s SPF record, allowing email from its authorised IP addresses.

SPF qualifiers

SPF qualifiers are used in conjunction with mechanisms to determine how strictly the receiving server should enforce SPF authentication results. The available qualifiers are:

  • “+”: Pass (default). The IP address is authorised to send emails for the domain.
  • “-“: Fail. The IP address is not authorised, and the email should be rejected.
  • “~”: Soft fail. The IP address is not authorised, but the email should be accepted and flagged for further scrutiny.
  • “?”: Neutral. No assertion is made about the IP address’s authorisation.

The role of DNS in SPF

DNS (Domain Name System) plays a vital role in the functioning of SPF. Since SPF records are published as DNS TXT records, receiving mail servers rely on DNS to retrieve and interpret these records during the SPF authentication process. This highlights the importance of properly configuring and maintaining DNS records for effective SPF implementation.

By understanding how SPF works, including its authentication process, record syntax, and the role of DNS, you’ll be better equipped to implement and troubleshoot SPF for your domain.

Implementing SPF

Now that you understand how SPF works, it’s time to dive into the implementation process. This section will guide you through setting up SPF records for your domain, including identifying your sending IP addresses, creating an SPF record, and publishing it in your DNS. We’ll also discuss some best practices to remember when implementing SPF to ensure optimal performance and security.

Setting up SPF records

Identifying your sending IP addresses

The first step in setting up SPF is to identify all the IP addresses or servers that are authorised to send emails on behalf of your domain. This may include:

  • Your organisation’s email servers
  • Third-party email service providers (e.g., G Suite, Office 365)
  • Marketing automation platforms
  • CRM systems that send email on your behalf

Make a comprehensive list of these IP addresses, as you’ll need to include them in your SPF record.

Creating an SPF record

You can create your SPF record once you have your list of authorised sending IP addresses. Start with the “v=spf1” tag, which identifies the TXT record as an SPF record. Then, list your authorised IP addresses and servers using the appropriate SPF mechanisms and qualifiers. For example:

v=spf1 ip4: ip6:2001:db8::/32 -all

This example SPF record allows emails from the specified IPv4 and IPv6 ranges, includes Google’s SPF record (for G Suite users), and fails all other IP addresses not explicitly listed.

Publishing your SPF record

After creating your SPF record, you must publish it as a DNS TXT record for your domain. The process for adding a TXT record varies depending on your DNS provider, but generally, you’ll need to:

  1. Log in to your DNS management console
  2. Navigate to the section for managing DNS records
  3. Add a new TXT record with the hostname “@” (or your domain name) and paste your SPF record in the value field
  4. Save your changes

Once your SPF record is published, receiving mail servers can retrieve it when validating emails from your domain.

Best practices for SPF implementation

To ensure your SPF implementation is effective and doesn’t cause unintended issues, follow these best practices:

Avoid using too many DNS lookups

SPF limits DNS lookups per record to 10. If your SPF record exceeds this limit, validation failures may result. Be mindful of the number of “include” directives and other mechanisms that require additional DNS lookups.

Use the correct SPF qualifiers

Choose the appropriate qualifiers for your SPF mechanisms. In most cases, it is recommended that you use “-all” at the end of your SPF record to fail any IP addresses not explicitly listed. This strict approach helps prevent unauthorised senders from using your domain.

Keep your SPF record concise

A concise SPF record is easier to manage and less likely to exceed the DNS lookup limit. Whenever possible, consolidate IP ranges and use the “include” directive to reference other domains’ SPF records instead of listing individual IP addresses.

By following these implementation guidelines and best practices, you’ll be well on your way to establishing a robust SPF configuration for your domain.

SPF Authentication Results

After implementing SPF for your domain, it’s important to understand the different types of authentication results and how to interpret them. This section will explore the various SPF authentication outcomes, including pass, fail, neutral, soft, and hard fail, and provide guidance on handling each result.

SPF pass, fail, and neutral results

When an email undergoes SPF authentication, the receiving mail server will check the sender’s IP address against the sending domain’s SPF record. The outcome of this check will be one of three primary results:

  1. Pass: The sender’s IP address is explicitly authorised in the SPF record. This indicates that the email is legitimate and should be accepted.
  2. Fail: The sender’s IP address is not authorised in the SPF record, which ends with “-all”. This suggests that the email is likely fraudulent and should be rejected.
  3. Neutral: The SPF record does not explicitly authorise or prohibit the sender’s IP address, typically due to the use of “?all” at the end of the record. In this case, the receiving server cannot determine the email’s legitimacy based on SPF alone and may rely on other authentication methods or reputation metrics to decide.

Soft fail and hard fail

Soft fail and hard fail for sender policy framework

In addition to the primary SPF results, there are two other possible outcomes:

  1. Soft fail: The sender’s IP address is not authorised, but the SPF record ends with “~all”. This indicates that the email is suspicious but not definitively fraudulent. Receiving servers may choose to accept the email but flag it for further scrutiny or apply additional spam filters.
  2. Hard fail: Similar to a regular fail result, a hard fail occurs when the sender’s IP address is not authorised, and the SPF record ends with “-all”. This result strongly indicates that the email is fraudulent and should be rejected outright.

Interpreting SPF authentication results

Consider the context and your organisation’s email security policies when interpreting SPF authentication results. In general, you should:

  • Trust emails that receive an SPF pass result, as they come from authorised sources.
  • Reject emails that receive a hard fail result, as they are highly likely to be fraudulent.
  • Carefully consider emails with soft-fail results and apply additional security measures or filtering before accepting them.
  • Use neutral results in conjunction with other authentication methods (e.g., DKIM, DMARC) and reputation metrics to determine the appropriate action.

Remember that SPF is just one component of a comprehensive email authentication strategy. By combining SPF with other techniques and regularly monitoring your authentication results, you can make informed decisions about handling incoming emails and protecting your organisation from email-based threats.

SPF Limitations and Drawbacks

While SPF is a powerful tool for enhancing email security, it’s important to know its limitations and potential drawbacks. This section will discuss some of the key challenges associated with SPF, including the 10 DNS lookup limit, forwarding issues, and its inability to protect against “From” header spoofing.

The 10 DNS lookup limit

One of SPF’s most significant limitations is the maximum number of DNS lookups allowed during the authentication process. The SPF specification mandates a limit of 10 DNS lookups per SPF check to prevent excessive resource consumption and potential denial-of-service attacks.

This limit can pose challenges for organisations with complex email infrastructures or those relying heavily on third-party services. If an SPF record includes too many “include” directives or other mechanisms that require additional DNS lookups, it may exceed the limit and result in an error, causing the SPF check to fail.

Forwarding issues with SPF

Another drawback of SPF is its handling of email forwarding. When an email is forwarded from one server to another, the original sender’s IP address is replaced with the forwarder’s IP address. If the forwarder’s IP is not authorised in the original sender’s SPF record, the SPF check will fail, even though the email is legitimate.

This issue can be particularly problematic for mailing lists, alumni email services, and other scenarios where email forwarding is common. To mitigate this problem, some forwarders may implement a technique called “sender rewriting scheme” (SRS), which modifies the email headers to preserve the original sender’s identity. However, not all forwarders support SRS, which complicates email delivery.

SPF doesn’t protect against spoofing the “From” header

You need to understand that SPF only verifies the authenticity of the sending server’s IP address. It does not protect against spoofing of the “From” header in the email itself. This means that an attacker can still craft an email with a forged “From” address, making it appear that the email originated from a trusted source, even if the actual sending server is not authorised by the SPF record.

To combat this limitation, it’s recommended to use SPF in conjunction with other email authentication protocols like DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance). DKIM provides an additional layer of authentication by digitally signing email messages, while DMARC allows domain owners to specify how receiving servers should handle emails that fail SPF and DKIM checks.

By being aware of these limitations and taking a multi-faceted approach to email authentication, you can better protect your organisation from email-based threats and ensure more secure email communication.


To further enhance email security and counter the limitations of SPF’s limitations, DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) is highly recommended alongside SPF. This section will explore how SPF complements DMARC and discuss the importance of aligning SPF with DMARC policies.

How SPF complements DMARC

DMARC is an email authentication protocol that builds upon SPF and DKIM. It allows domain owners to specify how receiving servers should handle emails that fail SPF and/or DKIM authentication. By combining SPF and DMARC, you can establish a more comprehensive and effective email authentication strategy.

Here’s how SPF and DMARC work together:

  1. SPF verifies the authenticity of the sending server’s IP address, ensuring that the email comes from an authorised source.
  2. DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) adds a digital signature to the email, verifying the message’s integrity and the sending domain’s authenticity.
  3. DMARC ties SPF and DKIM together by providing a mechanism for domain owners to specify how receiving servers should handle emails that fail SPF and/or DKIM checks and how to report such failures.

By implementing both SPF and DMARC, you can better protect your domain from email spoofing and phishing attempts and gain valuable insights into your email authentication performance through DMARC reporting.

Aligning SPF with DMARC policies

Aligning your SPF settings with your DMARC policies is crucial to ensuring that SPF and DMARC work effectively together. This involves configuring your SPF record to authenticate the same domain used in your DMARC policy.

When setting up your DMARC policy, you’ll specify a domain in the “p=” tag, which indicates the policy that should be applied to emails that fail DMARC authentication. For optimal security, your SPF record should authenticate the same domain as the one specified in your DMARC policy.

For example, if your DMARC policy is set for “”, your SPF record should include mechanisms that authenticate emails sent from “”, such as:

v=spf1 ip4: -all

By aligning your SPF and DMARC settings, you ensure that emails passing SPF authentication are also subject to the appropriate DMARC policy, providing a more consistent and secure email authentication experience.

Implementing SPF and DMARC together, along with proper alignment between the two, is a critical step in establishing a robust email security strategy and protecting your organisation from email-based threats.

Troubleshooting SPF Issues

Even with careful planning and implementation, issues can arise with your SPF setup. This section will cover some common SPF errors and provide guidance on how to fix them. We’ll also discuss tools available for testing and validating your SPF records to ensure they work as intended.

Common SPF errors and how to fix them

Syntax errors

One of the most common issues with SPF records is syntax errors. These can include missing or incorrect characters, improperly formatted IP addresses, or invalid mechanisms. To fix syntax errors:

  1. Double-check your SPF record for typos and missing characters.
  2. Ensure that IP addresses are properly formatted (e.g., “ip4:” instead of “ip4:”).
  3. Confirm that you’re using valid SPF mechanisms and qualifiers.

Too many DNS lookups

As mentioned earlier, SPF has a limit of 10 DNS lookups per record. If your SPF record exceeds this limit, it will result in a “permerror” (permanent error) result. To resolve this issue:

  1. Consolidate IP ranges where possible.
  2. Replace individual “ip4” and “ip6” mechanisms with “a” or “mx” mechanisms if appropriate.
  3. Use the “include” mechanism sparingly and only when necessary.

SPF Flattening and Services

SPF flattening is a technique used to simplify complex SPF records and avoid hitting the 10 DNS lookup limit. It consolidates multiple “include” statements into a single, flattened record. This can help improve the performance and reliability of your SPF authentication process.

Several services offer SPF flattening, along with other SPF-related tools and features. Some popular options include:

  1. PowerDMARC – Provides SPF flattening, DMARC record generation, and email authentication monitoring.
  2. EasySPF – EasyDMARC’s SPF management tool.
  3. AutoSPF – Dedicated SPF flattening tool.

Incorrect IP addresses

Another common issue is the inclusion of incorrect IP addresses in your SPF record. This can happen if you forget to update your SPF record when changing email service providers or if you accidentally include an IP address that isn’t authorised to send emails on behalf of your domain. To fix this:

  1. Regularly review your SPF record and compare it against your current email infrastructure.
  2. Remove any outdated or unauthorised IP addresses.
  3. Ensure all necessary IP addresses are included in your SPF record.

Tools for testing and validating SPF records

To help troubleshoot SPF issues and ensure that your SPF record is working as expected, several tools are available:

  1. SPF record testing tools: These online tools allow you to enter your domain name and test your SPF record for syntax errors, too many DNS lookups, and other common issues. Some popular SPF testing tools include:
  2. Email authentication testing tools: These tools allow you to send test emails to a specific address and analyse the SPF, DKIM, and DMARC authentication results. This can help you identify issues with your email authentication setup and ensure that your SPF record works correctly in practice. Some popular email authentication testing tools include:

By regularly testing and validating your SPF record, you can quickly identify and resolve issues, ensuring that your email authentication remains effective and secure.

Common Misconceptions and FAQs about SPF

Despite the widespread adoption of SPF, some common misconceptions and frequently asked questions surround its use. In this section, let’s address some of these misconceptions and answer frequently asked questions to help you better understand SPF and its role in email security.

Misconception: SPF alone is enough to prevent email spoofing

One of the most common misconceptions about SPF is that it provides complete protection against email spoofing. While SPF is an essential component of email authentication, it’s not a silver bullet. SPF only verifies the authenticity of the sending server’s IP address and does not protect against spoofing of the “From” header in the email itself.

To combat email spoofing effectively, it’s super important to implement SPF alongside other email authentication protocols like DKIM and DMARC. Combining these methods allows you to establish a multi-layered defence against email-based threats.

FAQ: What happens if I have multiple SPF records?

Having multiple SPF records for a single domain can lead to unexpected behaviour and potentially cause issues with email delivery. When multiple SPF records exist, receiving mail servers may interpret this as an error and fail the SPF check.

To avoid this problem, ensure you have only one SPF record per domain. If you need to include multiple types of information in your SPF record, combine them into a single record using the appropriate mechanisms and syntax.

FAQ: Can I use SPF with a third-party email service?

Yes, you can use SPF with third-party email services like G Suite, Office 365, or SendGrid. Most reputable email service providers support SPF and provide documentation on how to set up SPF records for their services.

To use SPF with a third-party email service:

  1. Identify the IP addresses or domains the service uses to send emails on your behalf.
  2. Use the appropriate mechanisms (e.g., “ip4”, “include”) to include these IP addresses or domains in your SPF record.
  3. Publish your updated SPF record in your domain’s DNS.

Misconception: Setting up SPF is complicated and time-consuming

Another common misconception is that setting up SPF is a complex and time-consuming process. While it’s true that implementing SPF requires some technical knowledge and careful planning, the process is relatively straightforward and can be completed quickly with the right tools and resources.

Many DNS and email service providers offer user-friendly interfaces and documentation to help you set up SPF records easily. Additionally, numerous online resources, guides, and tools are available to assist you in creating, testing, and validating your SPF records.

By understanding these common misconceptions and frequently asked questions, you can avoid potential pitfalls and ensure a smooth and effective SPF implementation for your organisation.

SPF Best Practices and Tips

To ensure the most effective and secure implementation of SPF, it’s essential to follow best practices and remember some key tips. This section will outline some crucial best practices and provide practical tips to help you maximise the benefits of SPF for your organisation.

Regularly review and update your SPF records

One of the most important best practices is regularly reviewing and updating your SPF records. These records should be updated to reflect changes as your email infrastructure evolves. This includes adding new IP addresses when introducing new mail servers or third-party services and removing outdated or unused IP addresses to keep your SPF record clean and concise.

Aim to review your SPF records at least once every quarter or whenever you make significant changes to your email infrastructure.

Use SPF in conjunction with DKIM and DMARC

As mentioned earlier, SPF alone cannot provide comprehensive protection against email spoofing. Using SPF with DKIM and DMARC is crucial to establishing a robust email authentication strategy.

DKIM adds a digital signature to your emails, verifying the message’s integrity and the sending domain’s authenticity. DMARC builds upon SPF and DKIM, allowing you to specify how receiving servers should handle emails that fail authentication and providing valuable reporting on your email authentication performance.

By implementing SPF, DKIM, and DMARC together, you can create a multi-layered defence against email-based threats and ensure your organisation’s best possible email security.

Monitor your SPF authentication results

Regularly monitoring your SPF authentication results is crucial for identifying potential issues and ensuring that your SPF implementation remains effective over time. Many email service providers and DMARC reporting tools offer detailed analytics on your SPF performance, including pass, fail, and neutral rates.

Keep an eye on these metrics and investigate any sudden changes or anomalies. If you notice many SPF failures, review your SPF record for errors or outdated information and make the necessary updates.

Educate your organisation about SPF

Finally, educating your organisation about the importance of SPF and its role in email security is essential. This includes ensuring that your IT staff, marketers, and other relevant teams understand how SPF works, why it’s important, and how to maintain your SPF records properly.

Consider conducting regular training sessions or workshops to keep your team up-to-date on SPF best practices and the latest email authentication trends. By fostering a culture of email security awareness, you can ensure that your organisation remains proactive in protecting against email-based threats.

Wrapping things up

In conclusion, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is a critical component of a comprehensive email authentication strategy. By implementing SPF, you can protect your organisation from email spoofing, improve email deliverability, and safeguard your domain’s reputation.

Recap of the importance of SPF in email security

Throughout this article, we’ve explored SPF’s crucial role in email security. By verifying the sender’s IP address’s authenticity, SPF helps receiving mail servers distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent emails. This protects your organisation from falling victim to email-based attacks and ensures that your legitimate emails reach their intended recipients without being marked as spam.

Moreover, SPF contributes to preserving your domain’s reputation by preventing malicious actors from using your domain to send fraudulent emails. Maintaining a positive sending reputation can improve email deliverability and build trust with your recipients.

Encouragement to implement SPF for better email authentication

If you haven’t already implemented SPF for your organisation, now is the time to do so. By following the best practices and tips outlined in this article, you can establish a robust SPF implementation that enhances your email security and protects your organisation from email-based threats.

Remember to use SPF in conjunction with DKIM and DMARC for the most comprehensive email authentication strategy, and regularly monitor your SPF performance to ensure its ongoing effectiveness.

By prioritising email security and implementing SPF, you demonstrate your commitment to protecting your organisation, employees, and customers from the ever-evolving landscape of email-based threats.

If you’re looking for an email marketing platform that simplifies the process of implementing these essential email authentication protocols, consider Nimbl. Our bulk email marketing platform includes built-in support for SPF and DKIM and fully complies with DMARC. By using Nimbl, you can ensure that your email campaigns are secure, authenticated, and more likely to reach your subscribers’ inboxes.

Additional Resources

These resources provide in-depth technical information about SPF and tools to help you create and validate your SPF records. By exploring these resources, you can better understand SPF and stay up-to-date with the latest developments and best practices in email authentication.

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