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Child smiling into camera while putting sunscreen on their face near the beach

Sunscreen Explained: How to Choose the Right Sunscreen

You’ve waited all winter for it, and it’s finally arrived — summer! It’s time for some fun in the sun, but there’s nothing fun about sunburns or skin damage. Choosing the right sunscreen can protect your skin and your summer plans.

Why You Need Sunscreen

Sunscreen is meant to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays that come from the sun. There are two different types of ultraviolet waves we want to block out:

  • UVA rays can cause lasting skin damage and skin cancer.
  • UVB rays can cause sunburns, as well as skin damage and skin cancer.

Who Should Wear Sunscreen and How Often?

Babies under 6 months have highly sensitive skin and should NOT wear sunscreen or be exposed to the sun. Everyone else should be slathering it on every day — hot or cold, rain or shine. Even if you’re inside most of the time, you still get sun exposure — walking to your car, chatting with your neighbor, even sitting next to a window. So, maybe you’re not getting sunburned, but it can still be causing damage to your skin.

What Kind of Sunscreen Should You Get?

When it comes to sunscreen, one thing’s for sure — you’ve got options. Go to the store and you’ll see shelf-upon-shelf of the stuff. Buying makeup or moisturizer? There’s a good chance you’ll see it in there too. So, how do you choose?

Moisturizers and makeup with sunscreen are great for days that you’re only getting brief sun exposure. But they’re not going to cut it on days when you’re out and about. Here’s what to look for in a sunscreen:

Broad Spectrum

Broad spectrum sunscreen shields your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. If the label doesn’t say “broad spectrum,” just keep looking.


SPF (sun protection factor) tells you how effective the sunscreen should be in shielding UVB rays to keep you from burning. For everyday use, a minimum of SPF 15 should be fine. On days that you’re getting more sun exposure, like a day at the pool or a picnic in the park, go for SPF 30 or higher. Just remember that the higher SPF does NOT mean you can go longer before reapplying!

Water Resistant

Water resistant formulas stay on better when you’re wet. They are also less likely to run into your eyes when you’re sweating, which makes them great for athletes, too.

Active Ingredients: Mineral-Based or Chemical-Based

Most experts agree that the most effective sunscreens contain both chemical and mineral (physical) barriers. You may be a little concerned when you hear the word “chemical,” but the American Academy of Dermatology states, “Scientific evidence supports the benefits of using sunscreen to minimize short-term and long-term damage to the skin from the sun’s rays. Preventing skin cancer and sunburn outweigh any unproven claims of toxicity or human health hazard from ingredients in sunscreens.”

To help you choose an effective product, look for the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of safe and effective sun protection.

How to Apply Sunscreen

Here are your three most important sunscreen application tips:

  • Apply 30 minutes prior. Sunscreen takes a little time to start working. Apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Use 1 ounce. Use 1 ounce (about a shot-glass full), and be careful not to miss any spots. Remember to protect often-overlooked areas, like your scalp and your feet.
  • Reapply every two hours. You must reapply the entire 1 ounce every two hours. You should always reapply right after being in the water or after sweating excessively.

Creams, Gels, Sprays, Sticks: Which One Works the Best?

The good news is they can all be effective — as long as you use enough and reapply often. Gels can be especially useful for “hairy areas” like men’s legs or on the scalp. Sprays can be easy way to spread it around. Sticks are great for around the eyes.

Other Sun Safety Tips

Sunscreen cannot completely block all UV rays, which why it’s important to take additional steps to protect yourself from the sun, like sitting in the shade, wearing protective clothes and hats, and avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.


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