5 skin-saving facts about sunscreen

Using products correctly can help prevent skin cancer and signs of aging

Published: June 2014

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Sunscreen may be big business, but not nearly enough of us seem to buy into its importance. More than half of the respondents in a new Consumer Reports survey say they usually skip sunscreen.

It's not surprising, then, that the incidence of nonmelanoma skin cancers, the most common types, has reached alarming proportions—up 77 percent in the last 14 years—and rates of melanoma, the mostly deadly form of skin cancer, have also increased. Knowing the facts can save your birthday suit—and possibly your life.

1. You’re never too old to start wearing sunscreen

For years, experts wrongly believed that people got most of their sun exposure before age 18. Here’s the reality: By age 40, you’ve racked up only half of your lifetime dose of UV rays; by age 60, just 74 percent. And for those older than 50, being in the sun sans protection can be particularly dangerous. Your body begins to lose its ability to repair the cell damage created by the sun’s rays and your immune system weakens, making you more susceptible to skin cancer.

2. Covering up should be your first priority

Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves. Avoid the sun or stay in the shade when the sun is the strongest (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and dress right for the occasion. Wear a hat and clothing that’s made from tightly woven fabric. (Dark colors are better at blocking UV rays.) Hold clothing up to the light; if you can see through it, the UV rays can get through, too. Specially made fashions with built-in sun protection (you’ll see them labeled as UPF, for “ultraviolet protection factor”) might be more lightweight and comfortable than regular clothing.  

3. Sunscreen can give you a false sense of security

It’s a common misconception that if you’re wearing sunscreen, you can stay in the sun for as long as you like. Some studies show an association between sunscreen use and an increased risk of skin cancer, probably because users felt more protected and increased their sun time—often without reapplying. Sunscreen is protective, but it's not a magic bullet.

4. A little dab won’t do ya

You should apply about two tablespoons for face and body—that's equivalent to 2/3 of a shotglass. In Consumer Reports’ tests of sunscreens, our lab determined that applying half of that amount means you get about half of a product’s sun protection factor. But you can’t just slather it on once in the morning and think you’re done. It’s important to reapply every two hours when you’re out in the sun; even very high-SPF sunscreens lose their effectiveness after that. Think of it this way: You should use half of an 8-ounce bottle in a weekend if you spend 4 four hours outdoors on both days.

5. There are sunscreen safety rules

The sunscreens in sprays can protect your skin as well as lotions—four of our seven recommended sunscreens are sprays. But they aren’t right for everyone. Sprays are flammable, so you shouldn’t use them if you’ll be near an open flame, such as a grill. The product can be inhaled, so don’t apply it direct­ly to your face; spray into your hand, then rub in the sunscreen. Because of those concerns, Consumer Reports recommends not using sprays on kids.

In addition, there are concerns about sunscreen ingredients. Tiny nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may penetrate skin and cause DNA damage. And as a precaution, pregnant women may want to avoid products with retinyl palmitate. Nevertheless, the proven benefits of sunscreen outweigh the potential risk of using them.  

—Trisha Calvo

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  

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