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Choose the Best Sunscreen for You

This expert guide will help you choose the best sunscreen for you.

Long gone are the days of slathering on baby oil before an afternoon by the pool. Today, everyone knows that wearing sunscreen is important. But there are enough choices in the pharmacy aisle to make anyone's head spin. To help you cut through the clutter, David Bank, M.D., director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery, offers a simple guide to choosing the best sunscreen for you, so whether you're out exploring a new city or relaxing on a beach, you can enjoy the great outdoors knowing you have the protection you need.

Choose broad-spectrum coverage. This means sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are long-wave ultraviolet rays that deeply penetrate the skin, says Bank. They cause sun damage that can lead to skin cancer. UVA rays also affect the production of collagen and elastin, which give skin its structure and firmness. UVB rays, on the other hand, are more superficially intense and don't go as deep into the skin—but they are the ones that cause sunburn.

SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, still matters, but it's really the broad-spectrum coverage, and not the highest number, that's important. For example, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent. Any sunscreen—regardless of the SPF—should be applied every few hours for optimal protection.

Look for active ingredients. There are two major categories of active ingredients to choose from, and both can get the job done well. The first category is chemical blockers, which are absorbed into the skin where they intercept the ultraviolet rays. There are more than a dozen chemicals approved for sunscreen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate.

The other category of active ingredients is physical blockers, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These act as a barrier and prevent the UV rays from reaching your skin. "The major plus to using a physical-blocking sunscreen is that it can block the entire spectrum of UV and visible light. This may give added protection against skin cancer and unwanted pigment change," says Bank.

Find the right formula. The most important thing about whichever sunscreen you choose is that you apply it every day, says Bank. With so many formulas on the market, including creams, roll-ons, sprays, and gels, you can find one that suits your needs. For example, if you don't have the range of motion you once did, Bank recommends a spray sunscreen. If you're prone to dry skin, creamier sunscreens can double as a moisturizer.