Find a sunscreen formula that fits your life and lifestyle," suggests Sandra Read, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. "If it's too heavy, sticky, or expensive, you're not going to wear it."
Scan the label for "active ingredients." This will tell you which ones are actually doing the protecting. Good choices include the highly effective sunblocks titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and the chemical sunscreen avobenzone (a.k.a. Parsol 1789).
Look for "broad-spectrum" on the bottle, too (sometimes written as "complete" or "total protection"). That way, you'll know you're guarded against UVB and UVA rays. Here's why this matters: Sunlight emits up to 95 percent UVA (the rays that penetrate deeply into skin, causing wrinkles, spots, and skin cancer) and around 5 percent UVB (the more energetic rays that cause sunburn and can also contribute to skin cancer). "You may still be exposed to massive doses of UVA if your sunscreen's not broad-spectrum," says James M. Spencer, M.D., associate professor of clinical dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Go a little higher on the SPF. "Sun protection factor" is a lab measure of the time it takes skin to sunburn when you shine UVB light on it. With an SPF of 15, it should theoretically take your skin 15 times longer. But since most people apply less than half the amount of sunscreen used in lab tests, they get only about half the protection. That's why most dermatologists suggest using an SPF 30.
Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by those really high SPFs. "They don't offer that much more protection," says Ava Shamban, M.D., a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. An SPF of 30 absorbs about 96 percent of UVB rays, but a 45 is only about one percentage point better. Still, you should use them if you have very fair skin or have already had skin cancer. "Your sunscreen will be stickier, and you may get slightly better protection," Dr. Shamban says. Try: Coppertone NutraShield SPF 70 ($10.49, drugstores) and Cetaphil UVA/UVB Defense SPF 50 ($14, drugstores).
Choose UVA protection with staying power. Titanium and zinc block out both UVA and UVB rays, whereas chemical sunscreens filter primarily UVB and only some UVA — with one significant exception: Avobenzone deflects a wider range of UVA rays, including the deepest-penetrating and most damaging kind. Ironically, it degrades in sunlight. To extend avobenzone's staying power, look for photostabilized versions, such as Helioplex (a blend of avobenzone and oxybenzone, found with other active sunscreen ingredients in Neutrogena products), or an ingredient like Mexoryl (a.k.a. ecamsule, a sunscreen chemical exclusive to L'Oréal and its brands). Try Kiehl's UV Protective Suncare Sunscreen Cream SPF 20 with Mexoryl ($32.50, kiehls.com). More and more companies now offer stabilized UVA protection. Try: Clinique SPF 25 Body Spray ($20, department stores) or Banana Boat Ultra Defense Faces SPF 30 ($9.49, drugstores).
Watch for ratings for UVA; they may appear on sunscreen packaging as soon as this summer. Current labels don't tell you how effective the ingredients are against UVA. But the FDA is currently considering regulations for sunscreens based on rules proposed in 2007. These will probably include a UVA star-rating system designating sunscreen protection as low, medium, high, and highest, with one to four stars.
Count the pluses — for now. Several sunscreens use the Japanese UVA rating on products sold in the U.S. This system designates a +, ++, or +++ to indicate lowest to highest UVA protection. Try Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream Sun Defense for Face SPF 50 Sunscreen PA+++ ($30, department stores).
Originally published on April 22, 2009