Want the Best Sunscreen? What You Need to Know

Summer’s here. And who isn’t cheering? But before you spin vintage Beach Boys vinyl or park your towel in a sunny spot, we have a public service announcement: Pick up some sunscreen, pronto. There’s a rock-solid reason to coat your body with this healthy stuff.

An Australian study confirmed a message we hope you’ll memorize: Slathering on sunscreen daily makes you 50 percent less likely to develop melanoma, the most deadly kind of skin cancer, and 70 percent less likely to develop invasive melanoma, the worst of its kind. You couldn’t ask for more convincing evidence. The volunteers were from a part of Australia that has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

We’re hoping that will light a fire under your flip-flops if nothing else has. Because, despite years of sun-safety campaigns that make stop-smoking advocates look like slackers, melanoma rates have shot up 45 percent. And two less risky types of skin cancer (squamous cell and basal cell) are up 16 percent. Yes, genes play some role in this, but sun exposure (including tanning beds) is responsible for 65 percent of melanoma.

“Okay,” we hear you saying, “but which sunscreens are safe and effective and not goopy?” Smart question. Here’s what you should buy this year.

Avoid controversial sunscreen ingredients. Some (not all) researchers have raised red flags about two absorbable sunscreen ingredients: oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A). Both are found in hundreds of sunscreens. The concerns? Very briefly, oxybenzone, which has been used in sunscreens as a partial UVA/UVB shield since 1978, has been called a hormone disrupter that mimics the effects of estrogen in lab studies. Retinyl palmitate has triggered genetic mutations when exposed to sunlight in the lab. In other words, one or both might have a cancer connection. The dangers of these ingredients have been disputed by the American Academy of Dermatology and others. We think: Until the research is clear, we’re sticking with sunscreens that use micronized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to block UVA/UVB rays. They work instantly and stay put, and, unlike chemical sunscreens, neither is absorbed. The tiny micro-sized particles help prevent a chalky look. We actually prefer micronized zinc because even microparticles of titanium dioxide make you look ghostly.

Beware of SPF “inflation.” There’s a decent case to be made that the sun protection factor (SPF) numbers on many sunscreens may be too high and create a false sense of security. But even if they’re accurate, few people apply sunscreen perfectly or use nearly enough. So squirt on a lot and go high, not low. Although technically an SPF 30 filters out only 4 percent more UVB rays than an SPF 15 (97 percent versus 93 percent), if you go with an SPF 30 (higher if you burn easily), you also get better protection against UVA rays. They’re the kind that penetrate deeper and cause skin damage that leads to wrinkles and cancer. We say: An SPF 30 is the bare minimum you should use.

Don’t forget UVA protection. That familiar SPF number only measures protection from burning UVB rays. Despite years of wrangling and thumb-twiddling, the Food and Drug Administration still doesn’t require sunscreen makers to list UVA protection levels. So you have to scour the ingredients list for UVA blockers. For the record, these include avobenzone, dioxybenzone, ecamsule, meradimate, the aforementioned oxybenzone, sulisobenzone—and, yep, zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide. We like: You guessed it, sunscreens that use micronized zinc oxide. It creates an instant physical barrier against UVA/UVB rays.

Save money on sunscreen. You can easily plunk down $20 or more for a fancy brand, but spending a bundle could backfire because you’re likely to use it sparingly. Fact is, adults need to apply at least 1 full ounce (a shot-glassful) and then reapply it every few hours or after swimming or sweating. We bet: That’s lots more than you’re using. Buy inexpensive brands so you spread it on thickly and repeatedly.

Skip goopy sunscreen. Excuses for skipping sunscreen (sticky, smelly, greasy, chalky, stings your eyes) are disappearing faster than souvenir teacups commemorating Kate and William’s royal wedding. Drugstores are jammed with choices: fragrance-free or scented; tinted or transparent; oil-free or creamy; sturdy enough for sweaty sports or gentle enough for tiny tots; anti-acne or anti-aging. All you have to do? Choose it and use it.