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Sunscreens 101

Choosing from the array of sunscreens available today can make a simple thing like sun protection feel like a chemistry lesson. Experts urge wearing a waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. But what does that mean? Learn what you need to know about sunscreens.

Q: Which skin types need to wear sunscreen every day?

A: All of them. Although the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recognizes six different skin types—ranging from Type I—fair skin that always burns easily—to Type VI—deeply pigmented or black skin that never burns—all skin types need to use daily sunscreen to prevent the sun damage that causes premature aging and skin cancer.

Q: What does broad-spectrum mean?

A: Sunlight consists of two types of damaging rays: Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are the primary cause of sunburns and skin cancer. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays penetrate deeper into the skin and contribute to skin damage, burns and cancer. The immune system, which helps protect you from developing skin cancer, is suppressed by both UVA and UVB rays.

Sunscreen ingredients like PABA and PABA esters protect against UVB rays only. For a broad-spectrum sunscreen that helps protect against some UVA rays, look for ingredients like benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and avobenzone (Parsol 1789). A new product recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Anthelios SX, is an SPF 15 sunscreen by L’Oreal that promises super protection. It contains a new ingredient, called ecamsule, which has proved better at blocking UVA rays than other sunscreen ingredients.

Q: Are higher SPFs better?

A: The sun protection factor, a number ranging from two to 50 or more, is a rating of the sunscreen’s ability to deflect UVB rays. Currently, no rating system for UVA protection exists. But an SPF 50 doesn’t necessarily provide double the protection of an SPF 25. An SPF 30 for example, deflects 97 percent of the sunburning rays, compared to 93 percent for an SPF 15. However, the AAD says fair-skinned people who burn easily should use the higher SPFs.