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How to Choose the Best Sunscreen for You

Don't let your beach vacation age you. Follow these expert tips

best sunscreen woman beach applying hat SPF

Help prevent skin cancer by applying sunscreen. — Getty Images

En español l Quick quiz: The reason we wear sunscreen is a) to help prevent wrinkles and age spots, b) to ward off skin cancer, or c) who said we wear sunscreen?

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Actually, all these answers are true. Sunscreen certainly does a) and b), but despite the fact that we spend $1 billion on the stuff each year, a new Consumer Reports survey found that more than half of American adults say they usually skip using sunscreen, and among those 60 and older, that number jumps to 61 percent.

This is disturbing news, considering that the newest research finds that the rate of skin cancer increased almost eightfold between 1970 and 2009 among adults ages 40 to 60. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is also on the rise among boomers, particularly men, according to the National Cancer Institute.

And if that isn't enough to convince you, a major Australian study in 2013 found that daily use of sunscreen significantly slowed skin aging in healthy middle-age men and women.

In fact, the study's results were rather dramatic: Those who used a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily had no detectable increase in skin aging effects — such as wrinkling, coarser skin, age spots — after 4-1/2 years. What's more, the everyday users had 24 percent less skin aging than those who used sunscreen only occasionally.

So how do you choose the best sunscreen?

It's not always straightforward. Part of the problem may be the overwhelming number of options. There's SPF (sun protection factor) to consider, as well as spray versus lotion, name brand versus generic, and whether the growing number of moisturizers with sunscreen are really effective.

In its survey, Consumer Reports found that consumers are most influenced by SPF in deciding which sunscreen to buy. But you can't always rely on that number, says Trisha Calvo, deputy content editor for health and food at Consumer Reports. The magazine's research center tested 20 popular water-resistant sunscreens and found that only two — Bull Frog Water Armor Sport InstaCool SPF 50+ and Coppertone Sensitive Skin SPF 50 — provided the SPF protection promised on the label. The others ranged from 4 to 40 percent below what they claimed.

Still, Calvo says, even though "the ones we rated highly may not have met their SPF claims, they're still protective." The simplest rule to remember: "Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen."

In the same vein, dermatologist Lisa Garner of Garland, Texas, encourages her patients to try different products and pick one that feels good on their skin: "Otherwise they will not use it regularly."

Because the sun's rays are strong most of the year in Texas, Garner says she spends a lot of time telling patients the importance of sunscreen and the best way to choose it. Here are some of her tips:

Aim for SPF 30 to 50

Although manufacturers can still sell sunscreens with an SPF that exceeds 50, it's not clear that the higher numbers are really more protective. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration is considering not allowing anything higher than 50. The sunscreen should also offer "broad spectrum protection," meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and it should be water-resistant, preferably up to 80 minutes. Products cannot claim to be waterproof, the FDA says.

Next page: If you're tanning, you're not protected. »

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