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The higher the number, the better, right?

Before you throw caution to the wind, though, you should know a few things about SPF. What is it, exactly? What do the numbers mean, and how high can they go? We use sunscreen to block ultraviolet light from damaging the skin. There are two categories of UV light -- UVA and UVB -- that we consider in terms of sunscreen. UVB causes sunburn, and UVA has more long-term damaging effects on the skin, like premature aging. SPF, or sun protection factor, numbers were introduced in 1962 to measure a sunscreen's effect against UVB rays. To determine a sunscreen's SPF, testers round up 20 sun-sensitive people and measure the amount of UV rays it takes them to burn without sunscreen. Then they redo the test with sunscreen. The "with sunscreen" number is divided by the "without sunscreen" number, and the result is rounded down to the nearest five. This is the SPF. SPF numbers start at 2 and have just recently reached 70. To figure out how long you can stay in the sun with a given SPF, use this equation: Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time

For example, if you burn after 10 minutes of sun exposure, an SPF of 15 will allow you to be in the sun for up to 150 minutes without burning. But before you grab your calculator and head for the beach, you should know that this equation is not always accurate. People usually use far less sunscreen than the amount used in testing. In the real world, the average sun worshipper uses half the amount of sunscreen used in the laboratory, which could result in a sunburn in half the time. What is in a Sunscreen Sunscreen combines organic and inorganic chemicals to filter the light from the sun so that less of it reaches the deeper layers of your skin. Like a screen door, some light penetrates, but not as much as if the door wasn't present. Sunblock, on the other hand, reflects or scatters the light away so that it doesn't reach the skin at all. The reflective particles in sunblocks usually consist of zinc oxide or titanium oxide. In the past, you could tell who was using a sunblock just by looking, because the sunblock whited out the skin. Not all modern sunblocks are visible because the oxide particles are smaller, though you can still find the traditional white zinc oxide. Sunscreens usually include sunblocks as part of their active ingredients. What Sunscreens Screen The portion of the sunlight that is filtered or blocked is ultraviolet radiation. There are three regions of ultraviolet light.

UV-A penetrates deeply into the skin and can lead to cancer and premature skin aging. UV-B is involved in tanning and burning of your skin. UV-C is completely absorbed by the earth's atmosphere.

The organic molecules in sunscreen absorb the ultraviolet radiation and release it as heat. PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) absorbs UVB Cinnamates absorb UVB

Benzophenones absorb UVA Anthranilates absorb UVA and UVB Ecamsules absorb UVA

What SPF Means SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It's a number that you can use to help determine how long you can stay in the sun before getting a sunburn. Since sunburns are caused by UV-B radiation, SPF does not indicate protection from UV-A, which can cause cancer and premature aging of the skin. Your skin has a natural SPF, partially determined by how much melanin you have, or how darkly pigmented your skin is. The SPF is a multiplication factor. If you can stay out in the sun 15 minutes before burning, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 10 would allow you to resist the burn for 10x longer or 150 minutes. Although the SPF only applies to UV-B, the labels of most products indicate if they offer broad spectrum protection, which is some indication of whether or not they work against UV-A radiation. The particles in sunblock reflect both UV-A and UV-B. They are right. While SPF 85 may sound like a lot more protection than SPF 30, the higher the number doesn't always give a high return. Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93% of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97%. SPF 50 blocks 98%. "The protective factors plateau from there. A product with SPF 100+ blocks about 99.1 percent of the UVB rays," Ostad said. "You don't really need a high number. They end up being expensive and don't offer more protection than SPF 50." Keep in mind, SPF protects only against UVB rays. Bottom Line It's easy to get overwhelmed with the sunscreen options on store shelves. Here's a quick guide to find the best products to protect your family from the sun: --Use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 and a maximum of SPF 50; --Make sure labels list UVA and UVB (or broad spectrum protection); --Avoid products containing oxybenzone and retinyl palminate if you're concerned about potentially toxic chemicals; --Choose lotions versus spray sunscreens for a more evenly distributed protection.

Remember to apply at least 2 ounces of lotion (about a shot glass full) and reapply often. The sun breaks down the ingredients in sunscreen that protect your skin. Experts recommend reapplying every two hours, or after swimming or heavy sweating.