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Sunscreen: what to know before you apply

health-and-fitness Updated: May 30, 2013 17:57 IST

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As the weather heats up, it's time to slather on extra sunscreen to protect your skin. But what kind is best? Is it safe? An expert from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) answers your burning questions.

"The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again," said Dr. Henry W. Lim, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, this week. "Just be sure to choose one that offers broad-spectrum protection, has an SPF of 30 or greater, and is water resistant."

1. Are high SPF sunscreens better?
Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun's rays. SPFs higher than 30 block slightly more of the sun's rays, but Lim warns that no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's rays. So be sure to reapply every two hours when outside and after swimming and sweating.

2. What sunscreens are best for infants and children?
Ideally, babies under six months should not spend time directly in the sun, Lim warns. Since babies' skin is much more sensitive than adults, sunscreens should be avoided if possible. Keep your little one in the shade as much as possible and dress them in long sleeves, pants, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. For older children, opt for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide since they do not penetrate the skin and are less likely to cause irritation.

3. Are sunscreens safe?
Dermatologists say that preventing skin cancer and sunburn far outweigh any unproven concerns for toxicity or human health hazard from sunscreen ingredients. Yet, the AAD recommends that in addition to applying sunscreen, you stay in the shade, wear protective clothing and sunglasses, and stay out of tanning beds, all important behaviors to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

4. What type of sunscreen should I use?
Creams are best for dry skin and the face, while gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp or male chest, said Lim. Sticks are good to use around the eyes.

5. What about sprays?
While sprays are easy to use, the US Food and Drug Administration is currently investigating the risks of accidental inhalation of spray sunscreens. Still, never spray sunscreen around your face or mouth, Lim warns. Instead, spray an adequate amount of sunscreen into your hands and then apply the sunscreen to facial areas. When applying spray sunscreens on children, be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid inhalation.

6. How much sunscreen do I need?
"For adults, a convenient guideline is to apply one teaspoon of sunscreen to your face and scalp and to each arm, and two teaspoons to your torso and to each leg," said Lim. "Don't forget your hands and feet."