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Buying Sunscreen 101: Quick Guide to Sunning Safely

Studies shed light on the best sunscreens (and ingredients) for your skin.

By Mandy Ferreira and Grace Rubenstein


Selecting the right sunscreen just keeps getting more complicated, as researchers make new discoveries about the effectiveness and health impacts of certain common ingredients. Here's what you need to know.

Shop Smart: Scour the ingredients

Be sure to choose a sunscreen that provides true broad-spectrum protection, shielding you from both UVA and UVB radiation, says Nneka Leiba, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, which publishes an online consumer guide to sunscreens every spring. And avoid sunscreen with ingredients like oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that penetrates the skin, and retinyl palmitate, a synthetic form of vitamin A that may actually heighten the risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin.

Instead, go for products that list titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—natural minerals providing broad-spectrum protection—as active ingredients. Apply sunscreen liberally and choose lotions over sprays and wipes; these may not give adequate coverage and sprays can be dangerous if inhaled, says Leiba.

Take Cover: Shade your face and neck

Melanoma, the most dangerous of skin cancers, rarely begins on the scalp or neck, but when it does, it can be twice as deadly as when it starts elsewhere, according to researchers at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. So don't forget to wear a hat when you're in the sun.

Wear hats that have at least a three-inch-wide brim and are made of tightly woven fabric or straw in dark or saturated colors. For extra protection, look for a label that lists an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), the amount of UV radiation the fabric blocks. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a UPF of at least 30.

Learn More: The Healing Qualities of Sunlight.

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