woman applying sunscreen to her shoulder

As the days get warmer and sunnier, sun protection becomes a high priority. This doesn't mean you and your family need to spend the summer as shade dwellers. The right sunscreen can offer protection from burns, sun damage, and ultimately help prevent serious conditions like skin cancer.

But not all sunscreens are created equal. And with so many types and varieties to choose from, how do you know which options are best for your family? Fortunately, there are general guidelines available to help you make smart selections that are right for the needs of each family member.

Select a High Enough SPF
SPF, or sun protection factor, is an important consideration for your choice of sunscreen. The SPF number appears on most sunscreen labels. It shows a measurement of how well the product deflects one type of skin-damaging ultraviolet sunlight, called UVB rays. According to the Mayo Clinic, overexposure to UVB rays can cause sunburns and raise your risk of developing skin cancer.

Sunscreen manufacturers calculate the number of SPF on their label based on the amount of time it takes to sunburn skin with the sunscreen on it, versus skin without the sunscreen. The Mayo Clinic explains that while it's theoretically best to choose a sunscreen with a higher SPF, there is no expert consensus on an ideal SPF number.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests using an SPF of 30 or higher, and the Mayo Clinic notes that you should choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 15. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has identified SPF 15 as the minimum number to use for babies and children.

Choose Broad-Spectrum Coverage
In addition to UVB rays, there is another type of UV radiation that can harm your skin: UVA rays. UVA rays can lead to a range of health problems, including increased risk of wrinkling and age spots and a greater risk of developing skin cancer.

Yet unlike UVB rays, there is currently no standard like SPF for measuring the level of UVA protection that sunscreen provides. It's important to select a sunscreen that is designed to provide protection from both types of UV rays. This type of sunscreen is called "broad-spectrum" or "full-spectrum" sunscreen. For the best protection for your family, choose a product that contains broad-spectrum coverage.

Consider Your Activities
When choosing the right sunscreen, it helps to consider what each of your family members will be doing in the sun. Those with a more active lifestyle, or who will be going for a swim, should consider choosing a waterproof or sweat-proof formulation. This will help reduce the chance of sweating away - or swimming away - the protective benefits.

At the same time, remember that no sunscreen offers total protection from water and sweat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning some changes this year to how manufacturers can label their products. By June 2012, companies will no longer be able to claim that a sunscreen is completely "waterproof" or "sweat proof." Instead, you should look for labels that say "water resistant." This generally means that the sunscreen offers 40 to 80 minutes of protection before it washes off.

There are many brands to choose from, but the Mayo Clinic says that brand is less important than how you use the product. Be sure to read and follow the direction on the product's label. Moreover, check that family members reapply their sunscreen at least every two hours. They should reapply more often if they are perspiring or playing in the water. Plus, be sure that everyone slathers on more sunscreen right after swimming.

Check the Ingredients
You'll find a large variety of sunscreens with a range of different ingredients at your local drugstore. Some manufacturers provide "organic" or "paraben-free" formulations, since some studies have linked parabens to breast cancer and fertility issues. However, there is no firm scientific consensus on whether or not parabens are safe.

There are some ingredients you can count on. The AAD recommends the use of sunscreens with any of the following ingredients:

  • Octyl methoxycinnamate
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Ecamsule

You may also find mineral-based sunscreens among the choices in the shopping aisle. The main ingredients of these products are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The Mayo Clinic notes that both these ingredients appear to be safe and effective.

HealthAhead Hint: Remember the Basics
There are some controversial issues surrounding the use of sunscreen. You can cut through the confusion by remembering what is most important: protecting your family from the sun's damaging rays. In addition to using a high-quality sunscreen with the appropriate SPF strength, and reapplying it during summer activities, it's important to keep some sun safety guidelines in mind. If possible, it's best to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV radiation is at its highest. Remember, even on cloudy days, UV radiation can still reach the earth's surface. Clothing also offers UV protection, so keep your family as well-covered as the heat allows - sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats can make a big difference. Some smart preparation can go a long way toward protecting your family from the sun, and keeping everyone healthy and happy.