Sunscreen Shopping Rules for Healthier Skin

When it comes to sun protection, too many of us haven’t seen the light. According to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly one-third of people said they never use sunscreen, and 69 percent admitted using sunscreen only occasionally. That’s scary, considering that most of us get the bulk of our sun exposure incidentally (for instance, while walking around on lunch breaks or driving our cars) and not while outside for long periods of time (say, on a picnic or at the beach).

Excuses for not wanting to wear sunscreen abound, such as these concerns expressed in the survey: It’s annoying to apply, it's expensive, it causes rashes or pimples, and it stings your eyes. But regardless of your reasons, dermatologists say, forgoing sunscreen is one of the worst skin mistakes you can make. Not only does it prematurely age your skin, contributing to the development of brown spots and wrinkles, skipping sunscreen can significantly raise your risk of skin cancer.

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 3.5 million new cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer, the most common type, will be diagnosed in the United States this year. And among women under 40, rates of melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer — have soared 50 percent since the 1980s, according to a 2008 report in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, a trend coincides with more days spent tanning or burning in the sun. While most skin cancers are curable if caught early, it’s far better to prevent the disease altogether.

But don’t worry — that doesn’t mean you have to hide under a beach blanket all summer. With the right protection, you can enjoy the sun safely.

And while wearing sunscreen is essential, you should know that not all sunscreens are up to the job of properly protecting your skin. Here are five key things you need to know before you buy sunscreen:

Where many sunscreens fall short is in their protection against UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin to cause premature aging and trigger melanoma. This is particularly sobering since UVA accounts for more than 95 percent of the UV rays we’re exposed to and, compared to UVB rays, generates far more free radicals that lead to wrinkles and brown spots.

There are several ways to ensure your sunscreen supplies a high level of UVA protection. First, scan the ingredient label (check under “active ingredients”) for the most effective UVA blockers, including a combo of avobenzone and octocrylene; ecamsule (also called Mexoryl, an ingredient exclusive to L’Oreal and its brands); or zinc oxide.

Another option is to look for sunscreens that meet a new set of standards from the Skin Cancer Foundation, including that they guarantee strong UVA protection. There’s one seal for daily-use products (including lotions and makeup) and another for active products like high SPF and sport sunscreens. Implementation of the new standards won’t be required until next spring, when all products that carry the Skin Cancer Foundation seal of recommendation will need to comply. However, companies including Vichy, Avon, Garnier, and L’Oreal Paris are already producing products that meet them. Visit for a complete list.

The third tip-off that you're getting UVA protection: Choose a sunscreen that employs the Japanese UVA rating system, which uses +++ to designate high protection from these risky rays. Shiseido and Elizabeth Arden use this system.

In fact, studies show that most people apply one-quarter the amount of sunscreen required to get the SPF promised on the label.

“Consequently, the actual SPF they achieve is approximately one-third the labeled value, meaning a sunscreen with SPF 15 offers a lowly SPF 5,” says Steven Q. Wang, MD, director of dermatologic surgery at and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a member of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Photobiology Committee. Hence the reason derms recommend at least an SPF 30. “They provide a margin of safety,” says Wang.

What about those stratospheric SPFs (70, 90, 100, even 110!)? Some derms worry they may give people a false sense of security — prompting them to stay in the sun longer — and suggest capping SPF at 50 (something FDA is considering doing).

But others, like Andrew Kaufman, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine and a skin cancer expert in Thousand Oaks, Calif., recommend them, especially for sun-sensitive people (those who have very fair complexions or have already had skin cancer). You should also considering trading up to a high SPF if you’re on certain medications — antibiotics, birth control pills or hormone therapy, antidepressants, retinoids, and natural remedies like St. John’s Wort, for example — that make skin more susceptible to sunburn.

“In hot, humid weather, makeup might spread or come off even more quickly,” says dermatologic researcher Zoe Draelos, MD.

In one study, antioxidants like vitamins C (ascorbic acid) and E (tocopherol) reduced these dangerous molecules by as much as 74 percent. Many sunscreens now pack this added power; if your favorite doesn’t, consider applying an antioxidant serum before slathering it on.

In fact, in a recent Consumer Reports analysis, sunscreens from CVS and Target — which cost under $1 an ounce — won top honors. So as long as a sunscreen provides potent UVA and UVB protection, you can feel safe buying budget-friendly sunscreens. And if you’ll apply them more generously because they’re more economical, all the better!

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