Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sun Safety

Top dermatologists answer all your burning questions about sun protectionTop dermatologists answer all your burning questions about sun protectionIf we lived in pristine, temperature-controlled labs, SPF 15 would be adequate--if not optimal--protection against sunburn (caused by UVB rays) and skin aging and cancer (caused by UVA and UVB rays). But we live in the real (sweaty, splashy, windy) world, and we don't use as much sunscreen as we should. In fact, the protection most of us get from SPF 15 is more like SPF 3 to 7. That's why the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using broad-spectrum SPF 30. It's great advice, but it doesn't clear up all the sun-safety confusion. So we asked the experts to solve your toughest quandaries, one by one.

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What's the highest SPF that's legit? I heard it's 50, so why do I see products with much higher numbers? --Veronica Walters, 33, Bensalem, PA

If you apply sunscreen correctly (see next question below), SPF 50 offers the maximum protection necessary. You're seeing SPF 80 and even SPF 110 on shelves because of "marketing, marketing, marketing," says Bruce Katz, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. Companies know that higher numbers make you think you're getting a significant surplus of protection, even though you're not. But the FDA has caught on to this strategy and proposed a rule making "50+" the highest SPF value allowed. The rule hasn't been approved yet, but many manufacturers are probably betting it will--they're already distributing products labeled SPF 50+, even as they continue to sell higher numbers.

Are sun-protective hair products a waste of money? --Joan M. Blewitt, 59, Kingston, PA

The sun can change your hair color, but products with UV filters or antioxidants may keep your hue from fading or turning brassy. If you like the color you've got (or spent good money to get it), a spray like Paul Mitchell Sun Shield Conditioning Spray ($18; paulmitchell.com for salons), shown above, helps. Will it prevent cancer? No--and cancer commonly forms on the scalp, says Dr. Katz. You should still wear a hat or use traditional SPF on your part (or your entire scalp if your hair is thin).

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What are the basic rules for applying sunscreen?
--Marijo Elias, 53, Kingston, PA

Remember 30-20-2-1:
30: The minimum SPF you should use (other must-haves water resistance and a broad spectrum formula).

20: The number of minutes before you go out in the sun that you should apply sunscreen. That is, unless your lotion has titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are effective immediately.

2: The number of hours you can go without reapplying if you're not sweating or in the water.

1: The number of ounces you need to coat your body with enough product (a 0.002 mm layer) to provide the SPF listed on the label. If you're using lotion, that's about the amount that would fill a shot glass; if you're using a clear, continuous spray, that's 30 to 90 seconds of spraying-enough to create a visibly glossy sheen as it goes on.

I hate it when I'm outdoors or exercising and my eyes start stinging from drippy sunscreen. What are my options? --Rachel Aydt, 40, New York City

That burning is usually caused by chemical sunscreens (ingredients listed on the Drug Facts label that end with-ate,-ene, or-one, such as ho-mosalate, octocrylene, or oxybenzone). Instead, look for a water-resistant product with physical (sometimes called mineral or natural) sunscreen, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Even with those guidelines, it can take time to flnd the right formula, since fragrance I can also sting. We tried a few dozen, and the clear-eyed winner was--MDSolarSciences Natural Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 40 ($13; mdsolarsciences.com).

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How long does the SPF in my moisturizer last? --Lara Mitchell, 34, Philadelphia

If you don't plan to work up a sweat or be outside long, the protection should last 2 to 4 hours, says Amy Wechsler, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. But if you'll be outdoors, you need a water-resistant sunscreen in addition to (or instead of) your usual moisturizer. L'Oreal Paris Sublime Sun Liquid Silk Sunshield for Face SPF 50+ ($11; drugstores) is as lightweight as a face lotion.

Any advice for applying sunscreen to your own back? --Donna Joy Dickinson, 57, Shavertown, PA

Reaching up and over your shoulder, you should be able to get the job done with a clear, continuous spray that works upside down. Aveeno's HydroSport Sunblock Spray SPF 30 ($10; drugstores) propels about 2 feet and should reach even the center of your back. If you're not flexible enough for the reach-over, slip on a tank top with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor). You can make your own by washing a top you like in SunGuard ($2; sunguardsunprotection.com); it coats clothing with an un-detectable layer of UPF 30 that lasts up to 20 washes.

I was diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma, and it was removed. My doctor says I have to be even more careful about sun protection. Why? --Amanda Bosca, 65, New York City

Skin cancer survivors are much more likely to develop a second skin cancer, says Erin Gilbert, MD, PhD, a dermatologist in New York City. That's because they've already accumulated enough UV harm near the original cancer (derms call it field damage) to make getting another likely. For survivors, skin exams every 6 months are essential. Everyone else should get one yearly--sooner if you have a suspicious mole.

I've been trying to eat healthier, and as my diet gets cleaner, I seem to burn less. Why would that be? --Jennifer Allard, 42, Newburyport, MA

Certain nutrients, especially phytochemicals, improve skin's ability to ward off damage. One study found that supplementing with lycopene (a pigment in red fruits and vegetables) may prevent UV damage; another showed that people taking a supplement with alpha-and beta-carotenoids (in orange and yellow produce) were less likely to have skin damage after UV exposure. It's possible eating a rainbow could delay sunburn, but that doesn't mean a salad is equal to sunscreen.

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Is sunscreen residue bad for marine life? --Elizabeth Rosen, 46, Madison, WI

Yes. Some ingredients in sunscreen can awaken viruses that kill coral's food supply--and ultimately the reefs themselves and the animals that live there. The common ingredients that are most damaging include oxybenzone and the preservative butylparaben. For an eco-friendly option, choose a product that uses the physical sunscreen ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide because they "break down more readily in nature," says Ni'Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist in New Jersey.

I have rosacea. Should I be using regular sunscreen on my face, or do I need something special? --Reisel Weinberger, 67, Merion Station, PA

Rosacea makes skin sensitive and more likely to react to certain ingredients in sunscreen--but the sun itself is one of the biggest flare-up triggers, so going unprotected is not an option. Robin Schaffran, MD, a dermatologist in Los Angeles, suggests avoiding chemical sunscreens, and Dr. Wechsler also tells her patients with rosacea to say no to fragrance. Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid Daily Sunblock SPF 50 ($14; drugstores) is a good option. Or try Colorescience Sunforgettable Face Primer SPF 30 ($50; colorescience.com), which has a tint that helps hide redness.

Can you recommend a natural sunscreen that doesn't look like toothpaste? --Christine Bossi, 42, Kingston, MA

The purest options are those without chemical sunscreens, retinyl palmitate, fragrance, or parabens. That leaves products that use physical sunscreens, which typically don't rub in as easily and sometimes leave skin with a whitish cast. After trying pretty much every natural sunscreen that meets these guidelines (for a list, go to prevention.com/natural sunscreen), we found the least toothpasty, most pleasing picks were Banana Boat Natural Reflect SPF 50+ ($11.50; drugstores) and All Terrain TerraSport SPF 30 Spray ($14; allterrainco.com).

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Is there any reason to wear sun-protective clothing? --Redd Becker, 55, Bellingham, WA

The best sun defense isn't sunscreen alone, so wearing cover-ups can help. But white cotton has only about UPF 5 to 7, and colored cotton has about UPF 10. Black velvet or dark denim can have up to UPF 50, but who wants to wear denim--not to mention velvet!--all summer? Instead, look for UPF 30 sweat-wicking clothes (try columbia.com).

Are sport sunscreens really waterproof? --Beth Scarnati, 33, Los Angeles

First, ignore the word sport on labels; it may imply some sort of water or sweat resistance, but the government doesn't regulate the use of the term, so you can't be sure. What you can be sure of is this: "No sunscreen is truly waterproof or sweatproof," says Dr. Katz. That's why in June 2011, the FDA passed a rule banning the use of the terms waterproof and sweatproof. After a June 2013 deadline, the most water-and sweat-resistant sunscreen you can get will be labeled "water-resistant (80 minutes)," like Coppertone Sport Pro Series SPF 50+ ($11; drugstores).

I know too much sun can cause cancer, but aren't the chemicals in sunscreens unhealthy too? --Bonny Lanlski, 50, West Wyoming, PA

Although a few studies have raised questions about the safety of two ingredients in some sunscreens (details below), you can find products without them if you're worried. Oxybenzone has been shown to cause hormone disruption in cancer cells, but a study of its effect on skin showed no statistically significant changes. Large doses of retinyl palmitate have been linked to skin cancer in mice that are susceptible to the disease, but no human studies show that it causes cancer, says Steven Q. Wang, director of dermatology for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, NJ.

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TELL US: What's your favorite kind of sunscreen to use?

--By Jennifer Goldstein, Prevention

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