Expert skin-care advice about sunscreens

As the heat and sun settle in for summer, the calls to protect your skin from damaging rays begin. But with so many choices of sunscreens, sunglasses, hats and even sun-protective clothing, it might seem easier to hide out in a dark closet.

Go ahead, break out the bathing suit. We've got the skin-care basics from two experts in the field: doctors Nancy Thomas, associate professor at the University of North Carolina's Department of Dermatology Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Kelly Nelson, assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center's Department of Dermatology.

Who needs sun protection?

Everybody, both doctors agree. The sun can damage your skin throughout your life, from immediate harm, such as sunburns, to longer-term effects, such as age spots and cancer. Although dark-skinned people are slightly less sensitive to the sun, they, too, can fall victim to its damaging rays. A tan means skin damage. Use a spray-on tanner to get your glow.

Even if you're inside much of the day, you're exposed walking to your car, into the grocery store or into work. And don't make the vitamin D argument, which says sun exposure is necessary to absorb the highly important vitamin. Just take a vitamin supplement, the doctors suggest.

What are UVB, UVA and SPF?

UVB rays are ultraviolet rays that penetrate the upper layers of the skin. They cause the more immediate sunburn effect.

UVA rays penetrate deeper and contribute to aging the skin. These rays have recently caught the attention of scientists, and more sunscreens now protect against them.

SPF is a measuring system for how long a product protects the skin against the sun. The higher the SPF, the more protection it offers.

What to use

Look for the words "broad-spectrum sunscreen" or "protects against UVA and UVB rays." From there, you basically have two types of sunscreens to choose from: chemical-based and physical blockers.

Chemical-based sunscreens use a formulation of chemicals to ward off the sun's damaging rays. Such products are plentiful, easy to put on and effective. There is concern about parabens, preservatives that some scientists feel may have estrogen-mimicking properties. For small children, it may be prudent to seek out paraben-free sunscreens. There are organic sunscreens, but reviews of those aren't overly positive.

Physical blockers include the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which physically reflect the sun off your face. They have no problematic chemicals, but they can be more bulky to deal with (remember lifeguards back in the day who coated their noses in thick white cream?). Although today's formulas aren't white when they go on, they are still thicker.

SPF choices

The FDA recommends a 15 SPF or higher, but both doctors say to go with at least a 30, if not a 45. Higher is better, because most people put their sunscreen on too thinly, which makes a 30 SPF turn into something like a 10 SPF. Hedge your bets and start strong.

If you're going to be active that day and sweat a lot, or plan to be in the water, get a waterproof version.

Brands the

docs like

Both experts like Vanicream Sunscreen because it is free of irritating chemicals and goes on smoothly. Vanicream can be ordered online at or, or call 800-325-8232 for store information or to order it. Nelson also recommends Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch, which is available in most drugstores.

Rules for using

The longtime rule for application stands: about 2 ounces, or the equivalent of a shot glass. ( Few of us actually accomplish this.)

If you're going to be inside for most of the day, one application in the morning should be fine. If you're going to be active and get sweaty or wet, reapply about every two hours.

Put your sunscreen on about 20 minutes before going outside. Don't put sunscreen on and then immediately jump in the water because it will wash off.

Sunblock in clothing

The fairly new line of shirts and swimsuits woven with special sun-blocking properties do work, say both doctors. Although they can be expensive, they save in the long run because they cover areas you won't need to cover with sunscreen.

Such clothing is UPF rated, which is similar to the SPF ratings for sunscreens. The higher the number, the better it protects. Most are somewhere between 30 and 50 UPF. Be sure to follow the care instructions.

Finally, grab a hat.

It's smart to wear hats and sunglasses. Any hat made of woven material can protect the head, which can also get burned (take note, men with receding hairlines).

Sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection are adequate for the eyes.