Don't get burned on vacation

6 simple ways to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays

Published: August 14, 2014 09:45 AM

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You’ve packed your toothbrush, your toothpaste, and your deodorant. But did you remember sunscreen? More than 1 in 3 Americans report getting sunburned every year, according to a new U.S. Surgeon General's report.

That’s risky because sunburn is a major cause of skin cancer, which kills nearly 13,000 people every year. Use these tips to safeguard your skin at the beach, on the golf course, or on the road.  

Find out which 15 sunscreens came out on top in Consumer Reports' lab tests.

1. Throw away old bottles. Sunscreens last for three years. After that, they lose their effectiveness. Most include an expiration date on the bottle. But even if last year’s sunscreen hasn’t expired, you may want to consider buying a new one if you left it in your car or outside for long periods. The active ingredients can break down in the heat. 

2. Look beyond a product’s SPF. A sunscreen’s sun protection factor is the feature that most influences your purchasing decision, according to a recent survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S. by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. SPF refers to a product’s ability to shield you from ultraviolet B rays, which can cause sunburn and skin cancer. But you also need protection against UVA rays, which can cause skin aging and contribute to skin cancer. To get that benefit, look for a product that’s labeled broad spectrum. Also, it’s important to use a sunscreen that’s water resistant to get protection when you're sweating or swimming. 

3. Time it right. Don’t wait until you’re outside to apply a product. Slather it on 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun, then reapply it every two hours.

4. Make sure you’re using enough. It takes 1 ounce of sunscreen (about 2 tablespoons or 2/3 of a shotglass) to cover your face and body adequately. But most people apply about half that much.  Our tests found that using half the recommended amount of sunscreen gives you half the SPF.

If you’re using a spray, keep in mind it can be hard to judge the amount of sunscreen you’re using. That can lead to less protection. To ensure you’re getting good coverage, hold the nozzle 4 to 6 inches away from your body, spray, then rub the product into your skin. Spray each body part twice in case you miss an area. One caveat: These sunscreens shouldn’t be used on kids because inhaling a spray could cause lung irritation. Flammability is another danger; last year, more than 20 sunscreen sprays were recalled because of reports of people being burned while wearing them when they got close to an open flame—such as a grill—before the products dried. 

5. Seek the shade.  Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves. It’s best to stay out of the sun when the rays are strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.). Also, wear sunglasses, a hat, and clothing that’s made from tightly woven fabric. Dark colors are better at blocking UV rays.

6. Check your medicine cabinet.  Many common medications—such as acne drugs, antidepressants, and painkillers—can increase your risk of sunburn or an uncomfortable rash when you’re outside. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if anything you’re taking might cause sun sensitivity.

For best treatment options, read What to do for a sunburn.

—Susan Feinstein

Discover why you don't need to use a "kids' sunscreen" to get good sun protection for your children. And learn how to decode a sunscreen label to ensure you are getting what you need.

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