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No matter what the season, it’s important to take care of your skin when you’re outdoors. By now, we need not remind you about the importance of sunscreen in preventing sunburns, skin damage, and worst of all, skin cancer. But given the sheer number of products in the drugstore sunscreen section, it can be daunting to choose one that will really protect your skin.

The most important detail to look for is whether the product has an SPF (sun protection factor) number. The SPF number indicates the percentage of ultraviolet-B rays that will not be absorbed by your skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should use a sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, which will block approximately 97% of the sun’s UVB rays. Higher SPF numbers will only slightly increase that percentage. The AAD recommends you look for “broad spectrum protection,” which will protect you against both UVB rays, which cause sunburn, as well as ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays, which prematurely age the skin.

But buyers beware! Some brands may advertise a high SPF number, when in fact, the product doesn’t actually provide that level of protection. In a recent Consumer Reports study, 23 out of 60 sunscreens failed to meet their advertised levels of protection, testing at “less than half their labeled SPF number.” It’s best to err on the side of caution. Look for sunscreens with “an SPF of at least 40 and containing chemical active ingredients such as avobenzone.” Products containing “natural” ingredients such as zinc oxide may not provide adequate protection against both UVA and UVB rays. In addition, read the labels carefully. The FDA requires all sunscreens list standard drug facts on their labels.

Also, check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen with no expiration date has a three-year shelf life, which is shortened when exposed to heat. So it’s a good idea to do a little research before you buy, or ask your dermatologist which sunscreen would be best for you.

Finally, it’s important to note that “[h]igh-number SPFs last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs”, so it is important to reapply the sunscreen every two hours, or more frequently if you’ve been swimming or sweating.

Make the effort to use sunscreen to protect your skin. It’s the only one you’ve got!

[1] According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five people will develop skin cancer by age 70. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin Cancer Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts, citing Stern, RS. Prevalence of a history of skin cancer in 2007: results of an incidence-based model. Arch Dermatol 2010; 146(3):279-282.
[2] Consumer Reports. What Does SPF Stand For? Understanding how a sunscreen works helps you get the best protection. May 15, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/05/what-does-spf-stand-for/index.htm.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Consumer Reports. Get the Best Sun Protection. May 18, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/sun-protection/get-the-best-sun-protection/.
[5] Ibid.
[6] FDA. Questions and Answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. June 23, 2011. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/understandingover-the-countermedicines/ucm258468.htm.
[7] CDC. “Sun Safety”, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety.htm.
[8] Ward, M. You can’t always trust SPF labels, and 5 other things to know about sunscreen. May 15, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.today.com/health/best-sunscreen-advice-2018-spf-natural-ingredients-t129080.
[9] Consumer Reports. Sunscreen Buying Guide: The ABCs of SPF. May 2018. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/sunscreens/buying-guide/index.htm.
[10] Ward, M. You can’t always trust SPF labels, and 5 other things to know about sunscreen. May 15, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.today.com/health/best-sunscreen-advice-2018-spf-natural-ingredients-t129080.