Image: 030627sunscreen_vmed.jpg
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msnbc.com contributor

Even though most Americans know we’re supposed to wear sunscreen, many of us tend to wait until we’re older — after we’ve had a skin cancer diagnosis or our skin turns to leather — before we start slathering up. But if health experts and manufacturers have their way, this trend could be about to change.

A recent survey of sunscreen use among recreational fisherman found many still aren’t heeding the call to cover up. Published in the annual skin cancer issue of the journal Cutis, the results didn’t surprise Ting Sun, a former research associate in the dermatology department of Boston University School of Medicine, who led the study.

“The older fishermen were much more likely to use sun protection, and the younger ones typically believed in immortality,” says Sun.

In addition to youthful denial, many of us shun sunscreen for the following reasons:

“It feels greasy.”

“It makes me break out.”

“It stings my eyes when I sweat.”

“It’s too expensive.”

If you regularly use one of these excuses, there’s good news: Manufacturers have heard you.

Gone are the days when sunscreen meant smelly, milky-white goop (though that variety still exists). Today’s array of products includes sticks, gels, lotions, and sprays — scented and unscented — that make it easier for consumers of all ages and lifestyles to follow the recommendations for sunscreen use.

For more information on how to choose the right kind and use it correctly, check out the answers to these frequently asked questions:

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Why is it important to use sunscreen?
The primary reason for using sunscreen is to avoid repeated or prolonged exposure to ultraviolet A and B radiation from the sun, which can cause skin cancer and lead to premature aging. In combination with other preventive measures, such as avoiding the sun or wearing protective clothes, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher helps protect you from wrinkles and, more importantly, skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using sunscreen year-round whenever you’ll be exposed to sunlight for more than 20 minutes — even on hazy or cloudy days.

What kind of sunscreen should I choose?
Choose a sunscreen product that you’ll actually use, suggests Dr. Jeffrey Dover, a dermatologist with SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

In general, men don’t like putting creams or heavy lotions on their faces, he says, so they might be more likely to use an alcohol-based gel or spray sunscreen. Some women may prefer a moisturizer combined with a sunscreen, or a product that blends well with their makeup.

“There are now tons of wonderful sunscreens — way more than, say, ten years ago,” Dover says.

A recent Internet search using the keyword “sunscreen,” yielded more than 130 selections on one popular online store alone, so you’re bound to find a sunscreen that’s right for you.

Want to avoid that greasy feel? Check out an oil-free product. Worried about allergic reactions or breakouts? Try a hypoallergenic sunscreen or one especially designed for sensitive skin. Want to get your kids to use sunscreen? Let them have fun with a watermelon-scented, fast-blast spray.

For the active set, there’s waterproof sunscreen for protection while swimming or just playing in the sprinkler. If you enjoy outdoor activities like cycling, hiking or tennis, you might score with a sports sunscreen — they dry quickly and won’t sting your eyes when you sweat. Need a sunscreen that fits your budget? Prices generally start around $3 and go all the way up to $30.

What about SPF?
SPF, or sun protection factor, is a number that refers to a product’s ability to screen the sun’s burning rays. The higher the number, the greater the protection. SPF numbers can range from as low as 2 to as high as 60.

“SPF 15 is really the minimum that you should be applying,” says Sun.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, SPF 15 offers 93 percent protection from the sun’s rays. If you burn easily, try SPF 30, which offers 97 percent protection, or go even higher.

How do sunscreens work?
“Some of them absorb UV, some reflect and scatter UV,” says Patricia Agin, director of photobiology research at Schering-Plough Corp., the maker of Coppertone and Bain de Soleil products.

In other words, when you use sunscreen SPF 15, most of the harmful rays don’t get a chance to penetrate or damage your skin. Experts recommend sunscreens that shield your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Don’t forget to read the product label to make sure your sunscreen offers this broad-spectrum protection.

The last time I used sunscreen I got a sunburn — why?
If you’re still getting burned, you need to user a higher SPF, or you might be making one of these common mistakes:

Skimping on the amount. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends slathering on a full ounce — enough to fill a shot glass — with each application. Be very liberal with your sunscreen if you’ll be around sand, water or snow, as these elements can intensify UV rays. Be sure to cover all exposed skin, from the tips of your ears to the tips of your toes.

Forgetting to reapply. Apply your sunscreen 15 minutes to 30 minutes before you head outdoors. Reapply your sunscreen every two hours. Water resistant sunscreen needs to be reapplied immediately after swimming or strenuous activities.

Thinking you’re OK when the sun goes away. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 80 percent of UV rays can penetrate clouds, so don’t slack on sun protection when the sky’s overcast.

Does sunscreen go bad?
“The data we have shows that sunscreen products are extremely stable,” says Schering-Plough’s Agin. However, storage conditions can affect the texture or scent of the product over time, she says.

“It’s not a good idea to store sunscreen in a golf bag, or in the glove compartment or trunk of your car during the summer,” she says. “It’s better to take it in and out with you and store it as much as possible at room temperature.”

Sunscreen should be good for about three years or until the listed expiration date, whichever is sooner. However, if it has separated, changed color or smells funny, give it the heave-ho.

As Agin says, “The best advice is, ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

Marie Karns is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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