How to Choose the Right Sun Protection

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on October 29, 2021

Spend too long in the sun, and you’re likely to end up with sun damage like wrinkles and age spots. The right protection can keep those blemishes at bay and guard against skin cancer. It can even help your skin heal if you’re already sunburned.

But walk down any drugstore aisle, and you’ll see a lot of different sun protection products. How do you know which one is the best way to save your skin?

Top Sun-Safety Tips

There are a few basic rules to follow to keep your skin healthy and protected from the sun’s rays:

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays every day of the year. It should have an SPF of at least 30. Apply Generously. A shot glass amount should go on each body area (face, neck, chest, etc).
  • Limit your time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UVB rays are strongest.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every 80 minutes, and more often if you’re swimming or sweating a lot.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat, broad-spectrum sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays, and clothes (long sleeves, trousers) to cover skin that’s exposed to the sun.

All About Sunscreen

There are different types of sunscreens with different ingredients and levels of protection. Know that there really are no wrong picks. Dermatologists often say that the best sunscreen is the one you will actually use.

  • Broad-spectrum: This means that a product helps filter two types of sunlight: UVA, which causes damage like fine lines and wrinkles and can lead to skin cancer, and UVB, which causes burns and can also lead to skin cancer. This term should be on the label of any sunscreen you use.
  • Water resistant: Sunscreens with this claim on the label will keep working for 40 to 80 minutes after you get wet. Each product has its own level of water resistance, so read the labels and follow instructions for how often to reapply.
  • SPF: This is a measure of how well the product filters out UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more protection it generally offers from sunburn. No matter what SPF you use, you have to put more on at least every 2 hours.
  • Wipes, powders, and sprays: The FDA hasn’t decided yet whether wipes, powders, body washes, and shampoos that have sunscreen are effective, so traditional lotions, creams, and ointments may be a better bet for now. As for sprays, some scientists think that if you breathe them in as you spray, it could be risky. The FDA is looking into that question, too. But you don’t have to spray them on your face to use them. Try spraying these products into your hands first, then wiping them on your face and body to make sure you’re using enough. 
  • Sunscreen ingredients: There are 17 active ingredients that the FDA has approved for use in sunscreens. Over the years, some groups raise questions about the safety of a few common ingredients, like oxybenzone. But the American Academy of Dermatology says that preventing sunburn and skin cancer outweigh any unproven worries about those health hazards. The Skin Cancer Foundation also says the ingredients are safe and effective when you use them as directed.
  • Who should use it: Everyone over 6 months old. Shade and clothing are the best ways to shield babies younger than that from the sun.
  • Sunscreen does expire: Look for an expiration date on the bottles you buy. If they don’t have one, mark the month and year of purchase and toss it after 3 years. The FDA requires all sunscreens to work for at least that long.

Other Ways to Shield Your Skin

  • Shade: UVB rays can bounce off sand, water, and concrete around you, so sitting under an umbrella or tree does not offer full protection from the sun. The bigger the umbrella or the denser the leaves in the tree about you, the better. Don’t rely on the shade to fully protect you.
  • Hats: Hats with brims at least 3 inches wide, all around, will help protect your nose, cheeks, and neck, equal to about an SPF of 5. They also help protect your scalp.
  • Clothing: Our clothes are often the best sun protection. And the more skin you cover, the better. Tightly woven fabrics like twill, denim, or spandex filter out more UV rays than “open-weave” fabrics like linen. Darker clothes also block more rays than lighter ones. When you’ll be in the sun for a long time, consider investing in clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) that states exactly how well it can protect you. A thin white T-shirt, for example, has a UPF of about 5, while a special spandex “sun shirt” or rash guard made especially for outdoor, active wear may have a UPF of 50 or more. Use UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing. Or use Rit Sun Guard Laundry Treatment UV Protectant.

Report suspicious skin lesions to a doctor at once, especially if you have abnormal-looking moles or a family history of melanoma. Have a yearly mole check.

Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology: “Key Messages 2014-2016,” “Skin Cancer,” and “Sunscreen FAQs.”

FDA: “Sunscreen.”

Medscape: “Shining the Light on Sunscreen.”

Skin Cancer Foundation: “If you can see sunlight, see the shade,” “New Sunscreen Labeling Rules Issued by FDA,” “Sunscreen,” “Sunscreen Safety: The Reality,” “Sunscreens Explained,” “What is Sun-Safe Clothing?”

National Cancer Institute: "Skin Cancer."

American Cancer Society: "Skin Cancer: Basal and Squamous Cells," "Melanoma Skin Cancer."

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