The best sunscreen you can buy

The sun's rays can scorch your skin, so it's important to have protection to prevent skin damage. These are the best

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The Insider Pick:

  • Daily use of a good sunscreen like Coppertone Ultraguard SPF 70 will fend off sunburns today, and help prevent the skin damage that leads to aged, wrinkled, blotchy skin later on in life.

Growing up in Southern California, summertime meant heading to the beach or swimming pool, a bottle of what was then labeled “tanning oil” in hand. SPF wasn’t a “thing” back then. In fact, I often slathered mineral oil on my skin to increase the tanning effects. Of course, I paid a price for that youthful foolishness with roasting sunburns back then, and today, in freckled patches of sun damage along with a greatly increased risk of skin cancer.

Knowledge of the powerful and dangerous effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays has come a long way in the decades since my fruitless attempts at tanning my pale skin. Today, it’s well understood that excessive sun exposure damages skin both on the surface and deep beneath the epidermis, and that damage is cumulative through your lifetime. That's why you need to use sunscreen if not daily, then at least when you'll be out in the sun for hours.

We've rounded up the best sunscreens you can buy to protect your skin, but first, a few notes on why it's important to protect your skin.

What are UV rays?

While the sun emits a wide variety of electromagnetic rays, 99% of them fall into three categories: Visible light, which is otherwise known as daylight; infrared rays, which we feel in the form of heat; and ultraviolet rays, which cause skin problems and also provoke several eye ailments, most notably cataracts.

There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Because the atmosphere’s ozone layer absorbs the majority of the UVC rays, they aren’t much of a problem. UVA and UVB, on the other hand, are.

  • UVA rays are the most prevalent type, comprising 95% of the sun’s UV rays that reach the earth. These long rays penetrate deeply into your skin, reaching the dermis and wreaking havoc on your cells. It’s UVA that promotes your tan, but also UVA that eventually, with enough exposure, leaves your skin wrinkled, leathery, and old looking. UVA also causes changes in cells that can lead to cancer. UVA rays are present all year round, and throughout the entire day. They penetrate clouds, glass, and shallow water, so don’t think you’re safe without sunscreen as long as it’s cloudy.
  • UVB rays don’t penetrate deeply into the skin, but these are the rays that cause sunburn and also contribute to tanning. They are strongly linked to the formation of skin cancers, as well. UVB are strongest during the late morning through afternoon hours of the spring and summer months, but they are present to some extent throughout the year.

What does SPF really mean?

You may know that SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, but do you really know what that means?

SPF is the measure of a sunscreen’s ability to filter out UVB rays. The length of time a sunscreen is effective depends on how long it normally takes your skin to burn without any protection. For example, if your skin normally starts turning red within 20 minutes, applying a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will theoretically allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer before burning, or for five hours.

In reality, however, most people don’t apply a thick enough layer of sunscreen for full protection, and neglect to reapply the product throughout the day. Dermatologists recommend a full one ounce of sunscreen per application, and reapplying sunscreen every two hours you’re in the sun. It’s also important to choose a full-spectrum sunscreen, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays. But most important of all, keep in mind that no sunscreen, regardless of SPF, blocks 100% of UV rays. Even an SPF of 100 blocks 99% of the damaging sun radiation, not a full 100%.

We want your skin to stay healthy and look good through your lifetime. That’s why we did the research to determine the five best sunscreens to protect you from the sun’s burning rays. After all, no one wants their summer vacation spoiled by a painful sunburn — and certainly, no one wants to hear their dermatologist say that the funky spot on their back is a skin cancer. So slather on one of the following skin-saving products and enjoy your fun in the sun, but remember — once your skin starts to turn pink, the damage has already been done.

Although the Coppertone Ultraguard SPF 70 is our top pick, for various reasons laid out in the slides below, you should also consider the Banana Boat SunComfort Clear UltraMist SPF 50, the Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid Sunscreen SPF 50, the La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk, and the Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50.

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