There you are in the drugstore aisle trying to decide what sunscreen to buy for summer 2006. Should it be the bronzer SPF 15, the ultra sunblock SPF 30, the maximum lotion SPF 50, the sunscreen cream with vitamins A, C and E or the quick-dry sports spray? Waterproof or sweat proof? And those are just a few of the many choices one brand offers.
Dr. Karen Scully, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Dermatology and Cosmetic Center, makes it simple for her patients. She tells them to buy a broad-spectrum sunblock.
"The higher the SPF the better," she advises. Price or fancy packaging doesn't matter. Adults can use products marketed for children and vice versa.
Broad spectrum means the sunblock protects against both UVA (ultraviolet radiation that does long-term damage) and UVB (ultraviolet radiation that can cause sunburn).
SPF stands for sun protection factor, but it's not the cut-and-dried number that some people think. An SPF of 15, for instance, doesn't mean you can stay in the sun 15 times as long without burning. Individuals vary in how sensitive they are to the sun.
Even people in the business, like Patricia Agin, a research fellow at Schering-Plough, which makes Coppertone products, admit it's a "general measure." The numbers are fairly meaningless beyond some protection, more protection and even more protection.
These days, with skin cancer rates rising, dermatologists are recommending that people wear sunscreen year round -- at least SPF 30 or more. The exception is babies younger than 6 months old, says Scully. Keep them covered or in the shade. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved sunscreens for newborns yet.
Scully believes women should use sunblock as a moisturizer. Moisturizers that contain sunscreen, she says, aren't as good at protecting skin against the ultraviolet radiation that can contribute to skin cancer and premature aging.
Sunblocks should be applied about 20 minutes before exposure.
You can't just put your sunscreen on and forget about it, even if it is waterproof and sweat proof. "If you're very fair and you're going to be in the bright sun for two hours, you should probably reapply it two or three times," Scully says.
Out of all those sunscreens on the shelves, one new product is an innovation in more than name only. Last year Coppertone introduced a continuous spray that is rub-free (except for faces), clear, and quick drying. The container can be held upside down while spraying. It was so successful, other manufacturers quickly followed. This year you'll find several continuous sprays on the shelves.
So do you need to replace your sunscreen every season or not? Often there's no expiration date. That's because, says Coppertone's Agin, sunscreens are regulated by the FDA, which mandates they must have an expiration date or a shelf life of three years or more.
"We recommend you keep it in your home," she adds, "but if you store it in your glove compartment or golf bag, it should be stable."
If the product has changed consistency, separated or smells different, throw it out.
And don't forget that no sunscreen is a total block, while protective clothing and shade are.
"No tan is a safe tan," says Agin.