Illustration: Bee Johnson

Why a quick SPF application can lead to a healthier, more enjoyable summer.

May 12, 2017

The season of farmers' markets, backyard barbecues, and beachside picnics has finally arrived. You're spending more time outside, so don't let sunburn spoil even a minute of it for you or your family. Beyond the discomfort it causes, too much sun exposure contributes to the aging of skin and increases the risk of all types of skin cancer. Melanoma, the most dangerous type, is responsible for approximately 10,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. About 3.3 million Americans have basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, which are mostly caused by the sun's ultraviolet rays.

With facts like that, it's hard to believe the majority of us don't make sunscreen a priority: Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only approximately 14% of men and 30% of women says they regularly use sunscreen on both their face and other exposed skin.

Here's what dermatologists want you to know about choosing and using sunscreen. Make this summer a chance to recommit to the healthy habit of protecting your skin from the sun.

Sun-Smart Strategies

There are many sunscreen options available, but their labeling can be confusing. Here's what to know now.

LABEL LINGO

Don't let the word "natural be a factor in selecting a sunscreen. "The word 'natural' isn't regulated. Basically you can say it on the label if you want," says Ivy Lee, MD, a dermatologist in Pasadena, California, an assistant clinical professor as the University of California, San Francisco.

Do pick a sunscreen with "broad-spectrum" on the label. That means it protects against UVA rays, which can age skin, and UVB says, which can age skin, and UVB rays, which cause sunburn.

Related: Help Your Kids Be Smart During Summer's Hottest Hours

"Look for something that's SPF 30 or above and water-resistant," Lee adds. SPF stands for sun protection factor, and it indicates how well the product will protect you from sunburn. No sunscreen offers 100% protection, but SPF 30 blocks 97% of the sun's UV rays. Going up to SPF 50 may block slightly more rays, but there's no evidence that a higher number blocks more rays than SPF 50, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

CHEMICAL VS. MINERAL SUNSCREEN

The most common types of sunscreens fall into two categories: chemical and mineral (also called physical). The former protects your skin by absorbing the sun's rays. The latter uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically deflect the sun's rays.

There has been some controversy over chemical sunscreens, particularly those with the common ingredient oxybenzone, because animal studies suggest it may irritate kin and/or disrupt hormones. However, there's no evidence of disruption in humans, and the AAD and the FDA stand by its safety.

Meanwhile, a Consumer Reports analysis found that chemical sunscreens are more reliable than mineral: Only 26% of mineral sunscreens tested met their SPF claim, compared to 58% of chemical sunscreens.

So which is better? "The best sunscreen is the one that you'll wear," says pediatric dermatologist Kalyani Marathe, MD, MPH, assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

LOOK BEYOND THE LOTION

In a perfect world we'd always use the recommended amount of sunscreen, which is 1 ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass. (Finally, a use for that shot glass collection.) We'd also reapply every two hours when we're outside. But that's not always practical, so Lee offers this sun-protection advice for when you don't have time to slather it on.

Keep Hats Handy
"I have a hat in each of my cars and a roll-up in my most frequently used handbags," she says.

Use a Sunscreen Stick
It's easy to carry and doesn't run as you apply—convenient for kids and adults, especially before and during sports.

Consider Sunscreen Powder
It can provide some protection when you're not likely to use lotion or a stick (when you're wearing makeup, for example). "Think of it like a finishing powder," Lee says. "I like to touch up with it on hot, humid days."

Sun Shields

There are more options than ever this season. Try one of our picks for faces, freshness, and kids.

 Photo: Laurey W. Glenn
 Photo: Laurey W. Glenn
 Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

CeraVe Skin Renewing Day Cream ($25)
Encapsulated retinol helps reduce the appearance of fine lines while this cream provides sun-shielding broad-spectrum SPF 30 protection.

Coppertone Clearly Sheer Whipped Sunscreen ($11)
A light-as-air formula that absorbs quickly and avoids that typical tacky sunscreen feel, making daily application more appealing. Available in SPF 30 and 50.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Dermo-Kids ($20)
Developed by dermatologists and pediatricians to yield a gentle, safe, kid-friendly formula that provides allergy-tested SPF 60 protection.