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What kind of sunscreen should I use?

Find answers to common questions.

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Today’s store aisles are filled with many types of sunscreen products. But what do all of the sun protection (SPF) numbers mean? How do you know if you’re using it correctly to help keep your skin safe from skin cancer?

Think of sunscreen as a filter. It helps protect you from the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays. But it doesn’t block all of them. Even with proper use, some UV rays will still get through. 

That’s why you should think of sunscreen as your first line of defense. It's only part of your skin cancer protection plan. You should also wear clothing that blocks the sun, and try to stay in the shade.

Read on for answers to some common questions about sunscreen.

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Schedule your annual skin exam

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Ask your doctor about it during your Annual Wellness Visit.

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What do the SPF numbers mean?

Sunscreens get an SPF number that rates how well they block UV rays. You should use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. 

There are products with higher SPF numbers. But that doesn’t mean they offer much more protection. For example:

  • SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays. 
  • SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%.

The higher the SPF number, the smaller the difference in protection becomes.

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What does broad spectrum mean?

“Broad spectrum” means a product has been shown to protect against both types of harmful sun rays, UVA and UVB. 

Broad spectrum sunscreen products can help protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if:

  • They have an SPF of 15 or higher, and 
  • You follow the instructions on the label, along with using other sun protection measures

How does sunscreen work?

Most sunscreen products absorb, reflect or scatter sunlight. They have chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Not all of them have the same ingredients. If your skin reacts badly to one brand, try another one.

How much sunscreen do I need?

Always follow the label directions. You should use about one ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass or palmful) to cover your body. Make sure you put it on every part of your body not covered by clothing, for example, your face, ears, neck and arms.

And don’t forget your lips. You can find lip balms with sunscreen at many stores. If you are also going to use bug spray or wear makeup, put sunscreen on first.

How often do I need to put on sunscreen?

Sunscreen doesn't last all day. You'll need to put more on after: 

  • Being in the sun for more than two hours 
  • Swimming, sweating or toweling off

Sunscreens can't be labeled as “waterproof” or “sweatproof.”  These terms can be misleading. 

Sunscreens can claim to be “water resistant.” But they have to state whether they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating. And they must be tested to prove it.  

Does sunscreen expire?

Yes. Check the date on the tube or package. Most sunscreen products are good for at least two to three years. But you may need to shake the bottle to remix the sunscreen ingredients.

Sunscreens that have been left in the heat for a long time may not work as well as they promise. So don't leave them in the car.

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Will Medicare cover an Annual Wellness Visit?

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Original Medicare covers the Annual Wellness Visit at 100% of the Medicare-approved amount when you get the service from a provider who accepts Medicare. You pay nothing (no deductible or coinsurance).

Medicare Advantage plans must cover Annual Wellness Visits without applying deductibles, copays or coinsurance when you:

  • See a network provider, and 
  • Meet Medicare’s rules for the service
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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.