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Unlock the Sunblock: 7 Sunscreen Questions Answered

We asked Dr. Clare Foss, a high altitude skin care expert, for the do’s and don’ts of sunscreen and skin safety—whether it's at the beach or on the slopes.

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Why Wear It?

No matter your beliefs about the state of our ozone, one thing is certain: It does not shield you from the sun’s harmful rays. Your safest option is wearing clothing that doesn’t expose skin, such as pants, long-sleeves, and wide-brim hats. However, that isn’t always practical. Cue the Coppertone. Wearing sunscreen will decrease your risk of developing skin cancer, slow the aging process to prevent, and protect your skin to improve its overall appearance.

When to Wear It?

Many people think it’s only necessary to wear sunscreen while baking at the beach. Wrong. Ideally, you should be slathering on SPF anytime the sun’s up. That means everyday, barring an apocalypse.

What Kind?

Be a sunscreen snob. If it doesn’t say “broad spectrum,” don’t buy it. There are two types of ultraviolet radiation that wreak havoc on your skin: UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are the ones that age you into shriveled leather. UVB rays are the ones that turn you into a lobster. But both types of rays cause lasting skin damage and cancer. Regular SPF lotion will only prevent damage from UVB rays; broad spectrum sunscreen is necessary to protect against UVA as well. Pay attention to the ingredients. Look for broad-spectrum protection that includes any of the following components: ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, or zinc oxide. Same rule applies to natural and organic brands. Dr. Clare Foss, a high-altitude skin care expert from Vail Dermatology in Edwards, Colorado, recommends these physical blockers that reflect rays as opposed to chemical sunscreens that absorb them. Don’t worry—gone are the days of lifeguard-style white streaks on your nose. Sunscreens with zinc and other ingredients are now made to be much more transparent; you can even get a tinted shade to match your skin.

Which SPF?

The higher the better, that’s the motto. For normal daily use, SPF 15 should do the trick. However if you’re going to spend the day outside, it’s necessary to bring out the big guns. The minimum you should use is SPF 30, and Foss says even that may not be enough. The FDA tests sunscreen in much thicker concentrations than consumers actually use. As a result, people may only be getting about half the protection of the number on the bottle because it is applied in a thinner layer than it was tested. To be on the safe side, use a higher SPF. However, don’t let levels above 50 trick you into thinking you’re invincible. A crazy number like SPF 100 does not mean it offers double the protection; the increased benefit is actually miniscule. 

How Much?

It takes about one ounce of sunscreen to cover the average adult’s entire body. In other words, you can finally put your drinking skills to use outside the bar because that’s almost a full shot glass of lotion. Add an extra nickel-sized squirt on your face, paying special attention to ears, lips, and eyelids.

How Often?

If you’re staying dry, reapply every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating heavily, reapply every 40 to 80 minutes. Follow the instructions on the package accordingly, and always put on more after toweling dry.

What Season?

Don’t be fooled by cloudy days or powder storms. Sunscreen is just as important on the snow as it is on the sand. Any time it’s light outside you’re getting exposure, and the combination of elements while skiing makes it even more dangerous. UV rays are more intense at high altitudes and about 80 percent of rays are reflected off the snow, nearly doubling your exposure to harmful radiation. Goggle tans are for gapers anyway.

Spending some time outside this summer? Check out this season’s hottest sunglasses.