Sunscreen Made Simple

Stay protected in the great outdoors with these 7 rules for buying (and applying) sunscreen, straight from dermatologists and skin care experts.

By Barbara Boughton from Reader's Digest Magazine, | June/July 2011
mom and daughter with sunscreen at the beach© Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock

How many times have you heard it? To cut your risk of skin cancer, sunscreen should be part of every summer (and winter) day. Yet almost one third of Americans don’t use it, according to a Consumer Reports poll — often because they hate getting it in their eyes or think it’s too expensive. And the rest of us are simply flummoxed by all the ingredients, SPF numbers, and claims (waterproof, sweat-proof, ultra-gentle!). Don’t sweat it. These simple guidelines are all you need:

Don’t buy sky-high SPF.
Unless you’ve had skin cancer or have another skin condition, sunscreen with an SPF of 30 (or 50 if you’re very fair) is fine. A higher SPF tends to be pricier, but it doesn’t add enough protection to be worth the extra cost.

Buy “broad spectrum” protection.
That means the sunscreen blocks ultraviolet B rays, which cause sunburn, and ultraviolet A rays, which don’t burn but penetrate farther into your skin. Both types age your skin and increase cancer risk.

Pick one product for the whole family.
Most kids will do fine with your sunscreen, says dermatologist Lisa Garner, MD, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

For sensitive skin, use a mineral-based sunscreen.
These physically block rays rather than just absorb them and are less likely to provoke itchiness or other allergic reactions; look for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide on the label. Paraben-free preparations are gentler on your skin too.

If you’re in the water a lot or you’re athletic, look for very water resistant on the label.
And if sunscreen runs into your eyes when you sweat, use a wax-based stick, says Robert Friedman, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Stick with one you like.
Lotions, sprays, and sticks are equally effective.” The best sunscreen is one you will use,” says California dermatologist Robert Beer, MD. Good options: Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock, CVS Sunscreen with Zinc Oxide, and Coppertone ultraGuard Lotion.

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