Here's How to Figure Out What SPF You Should Use

It's time to banish the burn.

Summer's almost here, meaning that those of us who spent the winter cooped up indoors are once again heading outside to enjoy the season's warm, vitamin D-rich embrace. However, before you head outdoors, it's important to to take an important safety measure first: slathering on some SPF. While many people think they can safely skip the sunscreen, sun protection is no laughing matter: skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and the American Cancer Society estimates that 91,270 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year, killing 9,320 people.

The good news is that regular skin self-examinations, check-ups with a dermatologist, and using sunscreen are all great ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer or to catch it during a treatable stage. The bad news? Finding the perfect sunscreen is easier said than done. So, how can you determine which sunscreen is right for you?

SPF stands for "sun protection factor," and it's an indicator of how long it takes before the sun's UVB rays start to redden skin versus how long it would take without any protection, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So, it takes 15 times longer for your skin to redden using SPF 15 than using no sunscreen at all. And an SPF of 15 will block 94 percent of UVB rays, whereas SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. SPF 50 will block 98 percent. Unfortunately, there isn't an SPF that blocks 100 percent. Luckily, most people don't need an SPF above 30 unless they burn very quickly. However, if you have fair skin, red hair, light eyes, turn pink at the slightest hint of sun, or take medications that make your skin sensitive to sunlight, SPF 50 or higher will be a better bet.

Of course, UVBs aren't the only rays that can potentially cause harm—there are also UVA rays to contend with. Until recently, it was thought that UVA rays don't cause skin cancer, but recent research suggests they can damage the basal layer of the epidermis, which is where most skin cancers begin. UVA rays, which make up the majority of the UV radiation that reaches Earth, also play a huge part in aging, skin damage, and wrinkles, making it important to protect against them, as well. Unfortunately, not all sunscreen offers UVA protection. To make sure you're adequately covered, buy a sunscreen that offers either multi-spectrum, broad spectrum, or UVA/UVB protection to keep yourself safe from UVA and UVB rays.

And before you hit the beach, remember these rules: sunscreen only works as well as you apply it, so make sure you do a thorough job and don't miss commonly forgotten spots, like your ears and the tops of your feet. It's also important to remember that water-resistant and waterproof are two separate things, and you might need to reapply after a swim, so check your sunscreen's directions to find out. Also, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours and using approximately a shot glass-sized amount of sunscreen each for each application, so don't be stingy when it comes to keeping your skin safe. And for more ways to skip that summer sizzle, learn how to Beat the Summer Sun With These 10 Skin Care Products.

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