Screen Test: What Kind of Sun Protection to Buy and How to Wear It

By Amelia Harnish

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Sunscreen bottle
Photo by Peter Ardito

Get the Best Sunscreen

Whether you're on vacation, running errands, or going to work, you can't avoid the sun completely, says David Kriegel, MD, director of the Manhattan Center for Dermatology and a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. Something is always exposed, especially your face and hands, and the sun damage adds up over time. The most effective products block both types of ultraviolet rays -- UVB, which are stronger and cause nasty burns, and UVA, which penetrate deeper into the skin and cause wrinkles and premature aging. Both types of rays lead to DNA damage that can cause skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

You can trust the SPF to tell you what you need to know about UVB protection. But figuring out the amount of protection you'll get against UVA rays is trickier because the FDA doesn't regulate labeling for it. So what's a girl to do? Flip the bottle over and look at the active ingredients, says Dr. Wang.

If the label says broad-spectrum or UVA/UVB protection, there will be some degree of UVA protection, but you have no way to know how much. Here's what you can do: Look for the ingredient avobenzone. It's the best UVA filter we have in the United States, says Dr. Wang, but it needs to be combined with a stabilizer, such as octocrylene, so it doesn't break down. Or look for the ingredient Mexoryl, also known as ecamsule, another good UVA filter, and one that doesn't need a stabilizer.

Titanium oxide and zinc oxide are physical blockers that reflect UVA and UVB rays, so they're great for broad-spectrum effectiveness, especially if combined with other ingredients, says Ellen Marmur, MD, chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. "I call it the kitchen sink approach. The SPF only tells you one part of the story, so look for products that have some of the blockers -- zinc and titanium dioxides -- and the screens, like avobenzone and oxybenzone."

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