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7 Things Everyone Should Know About Sunscreen

Americans spend billions of dollars annually on anti-aging serums, fancy wrinkle creams and other expensive products in a quest to look young. What many people don't realize is that one of the best anti-aging beauty secrets costs very little and is available at your local drugstore: sunscreen.

Sunscreen Infographic

Not only can sunscreen help prevent the visible signs of aging that result from sun exposure, but it also can help protect you from skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States.

Aside from causing wrinkles and brown spots, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damages the DNA in skin cells, potentially leading to skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3.5 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with basal and squamous cell skin cancer this year. Another 74,000 will learn they have melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Capable of spreading throughout the body, melanoma is the most common form of cancer in young adults 25 to 29 years old and is expected to cause nearly 10,000 deaths in 2015.

[Read More: Protect Your Skin From the Inside Out]

The good news is that using sunscreen as part of an overall sun-protection plan can help minimize your exposure to UV rays, one controllable risk factor for skin cancer. But facing the dizzying number of products on sale in the sunscreen aisle can be confusing. Which one is right for you? Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing and using sunscreen:

1. Have a Sun-Protection Plan
Sunscreen is just one part of an effective sun-protection strategy. Plan your day to limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., seek shade when outdoors and wear protective clothing, such as a swim shirt and broad-brimmed hat. These will all help lower your chances for early skin aging and skin cancer.

 2. SPF
A history of sunburn raises your risk for skin cancer. The SPF value of a sunscreen tells you how much protection it offers from UVB radiation, the type that causes skin to burn. It's a measure of how many times longer you can stay in the sun before burning while wearing the sunscreen than you can without it.

If your skin normally takes 10 minutes to burn without sunscreen, using an SPF of 30 would theoretically allow you to stay in the sun for 300 minutes before burning. However, if you use less sunscreen than the manufacturer did when testing the SPF, you may not be getting the level of protection you think. To be on the safe side, wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

3. Broad Spectrum
While SPF pertains only to UVB radiation, it's also critical to protect yourself from UVA rays, the type that prematurely age the skin and can contribute to skin cancer. Look for the phrase "broad spectrum," which means that the sunscreen meets new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for protecting against both UVA and UVB rays.

4. "Water Resistant" and Other Claims
Under new FDA rules, manufacturers can no longer identify their products as "sunblock," "waterproof" or "sweatproof" because doing so overstates their effectiveness. Sunscreen labeled "water resistant" must state whether it remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes during swimming or sweating.

5. Ingredients
Active ingredients in sunscreens fall into two categories: chemical (such as avobenzone or oxybenzone) and physical (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide). If you are concerned about chemical ingredients, and especially if you have sensitive skin, opt for a physical sunscreen, which will provide good broad-spectrum protection.

[Read More: 5 Steps to Living a Healthier Life]

6. Preference
Be sure to pick a sunscreen you like and will actually use. If you don't like the smell or feel of it, chances are it will sit unused in your medicine cabinet where it won't do any good at all. 

7. Proper Usage
Using sunscreen effectively is as important as which one you choose:

* Apply it before you go outdoors.

* Don’t skimp! When covering your whole body, the rule of thumb is one ounce -- the size of a shot glass.

* Be careful not to miss any exposed skin.

*Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming, toweling off or sweating heavily.

Sunscreen is an important tool in minimizing skin damage from the sun's harmful rays. Enjoy the outdoors safely by using it as part of a total sun-protection program -- your skin will thank you!

--Dr. Stein

Readers -- Do you wear sunscreen every day? What SPF is your sunscreen? What is your favorite sunscreen? How do you choose which sunscreen to use? Leave a comment below and let us know. 

Dr. Jennifer A. Stein is the director of the transplant dermatology unit and the associate director of the pigmented lesion service of the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. She has a particular interest in atypical moles and early detection of melanoma and uses specialized imaging techniques, such as dermoscopy and sequential digital imaging for melanoma surveillance, to help distinguish benign moles from melanomas. Her research focuses on early detection and treatment of melanomas of special sites, such as the hands, feet and face. 

Dr. Stein holds the academic appointment of Assistant Professor in the Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone. She earned both her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from NYU School of Medicine and completed her residency at NYU Langone. A board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Stein has authored or co-authored more than 40 published studies on skin cancer and other dermatologic conditions. 

Connect with Dr. Stein on Twitter.

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