What to Look for in Sunscreen

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Story Updated: May 23, 2013

The one essential beauty rule for your most beautiful skin: Apply sunscreen every day. You already know this, of course! But if you've strayed from this rule all fall and winter, now is the time to renew your pledge to protect your skin daily.

When you're shopping for a new tube of sunscreen, you'll notice that labels look a little different. That's because new FDA regulations have gone into effect, making it easier to choose the right sunscreen from the scores of products on your drugstore shelf. "Not all sunscreens are created equal," says FDA scientist Lydia Velazquez, PharmD. "Our scientific understanding has grown -- this new information will help consumers know which products offer the best protection from the harmful rays of the sun."

Here's what the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises you look for when shopping for sunscreen:

1. Broad spectrum:
This means a sunscreen protects the skin from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, both of which can cause cancer and premature aging.

2. SPF 30 or higher:
This lets you know the sunscreen will block 97 percent of the sun's rays. Sunscreens with higher-number SPF block slightly more of the sun's rays, the AAD says, "but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the rays." Some experts think the extra protection is worthwhile. Jessica J. Krant, a New York dermatologist and clinical professor at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, is among them. In the summer, she switches from an SPF 30 to an SPF 50 for daily use on her face. "Even though there is less and less of a difference with the higher SPF you get, I still want that difference," she says. "If SPF 30 blocks 97% of UV rays and SPF 55 blocks 98%, that's over a 33 % increase in my protection from ultraviolet damage. That difference is valuable to me."

3. Water resistant:
Sunscreens can no longer claim to be "waterproof" or "sweatproof" (because they're not!). Products that are "water resistant" will keep providing the full level of SPF even while you swim or sweat. The label must specify how long this protection will last, based on testing, before you need to reapply. Only two times are permitted: 40 or 80 minutes.

Here are some other sunscreen smarts to keep in mind:

  • Apply liberally. One ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, is the amount you need to cover the exposed areas of your body, according to the AAD.
  • Reapply often. That means every two hours if you're outdoors; more often if your skin is getting wet from a dip in the pool or surf, or a strenuous hike, bike ride or tennis game.
  • Protect your lips with a separate lip balm that offers broad-spectrum SPF 30 or above coverage.

    Apply in advance.
    That means at least 15 minutes before you go outside. The exception to this rule: physical (not chemical) sunscreens, which are effective as soon as you apply them. These contain the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium oxide.

    • Choose a formula you love. It won't protect you if you don't use it. With so many different formulations -- including lotions, creams, gels and sprays -- and scented or unscented options, even the pickiest among us can find a sunscreen we'll want to apply. The best pick might be a sunscreen and moisturizer in one. That way, you won't have to add an extra step to your skin care regimen to defend against damaging UV rays.

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