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Summer is here — the perfect season for long swims, lazy days, and catching rays.

But while many of us love the sun, it doesn’t love us. It’s a bad romance that can leave lasting damage to our skin. It can cause wrinkles, premature aging, and even cancer.

However, with the proper protection, there’s still plenty of fun in the sun to be had.

Here’s everything you need to know to help your skin remain unscathed this summer and why sunscreen is the best friend you can bring to the beach.

The best defense

All sunscreens aren’t equally effective. It’s important to read labels and understand exactly what you’re slathering on before you step outside.

SPF indicates the amount of time it would take you to get a sunburn if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. It refers to the ability of sunscreen to block ultraviolet B (UVB) rays (which can cause sunburns) but not UVA rays (which are linked to sun damage). However, both contribute to the risk of developing skin cancer.

“The SPF designation is a starting point, but people shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that they are getting twice as much protection when they go from a 50 to a 100 SPF,” Dr. Barney Kenet, a dermatologist in New York City, told Healthline.

Kenet says he recommends SPF 30 in most cases.

“Even with SPF 30, you need to use common sense. Reapply sunscreen at two- to three-hour intervals, and don’t be fooled into thinking you are totally protected. SPF designates the protection from UVB rays, not UVA. That’s why it’s also important to look for the label ‘broad spectrum,’ which means both UVA and UVB rays are blocked,” he said.

If you’re stuck deciding between chemical or mineral sunscreens, Kenet suggests making a decision based on your personal preference or any allergies you may have.

“I tell my patients that the best sunscreen is the one [that’s used] properly,” he said.

The best brands

Consumer Reports recently tested 73 different sunscreens to determine the accuracy of the products’ SPF claims and the effectiveness of its UVA blockers.

The top score went to La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk. The sunscreens that followed were:

  • Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50
  • Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+
  • Banana Boat Continuous SPF 50+ Spray 6 Ounce Sun Comfort
  • Up & Up Kids Sunscreen Stick SPF 55

Risk factors for skin cancer

In addition to prolonged sun exposure, several factors can increase a person’s risk of developing melanoma skin cancer. These include:

UV exposure

UV rays reach your skin through exposure to sunlight, tanning beds, and sunlamps, damaging the DNA of skin cells. While UV rays make up only a very small portion of the sun’s rays, they’re the main culprit behind sun damage on your skin.

Especially harmful are frequent sunburns, especially in childhood. Indoor tanning isn’t any safer than the real thing, either. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says any claims by the tanning industry that the bronzing method is safe, healthy, and can reverse aging are absolute “bunk.”

Moles

A mole doesn’t necessarily signal susceptibility to skin cancer. But people with many moles are more likely to develop melanoma. A close eye should be kept on all moles, watching for changes in shape, color or size.

Skin and hair color

People with red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily also have a greater risk for developing melanoma.

Family history

About 10 percent of people with melanoma have a family history of the disease. That risk increases if a person’s parents, sisters, or brothers have had melanoma. In some families, the risk might come from shared hobbies and lifestyles (boating or fishing, for example), but in others, the tendency is genetic.

A weakened immune system

Any condition that weakens the immune system can also contribute to an individual’s likelihood of developing melanoma.

Age

Skin damage accumulates over the course of a person’s lifespan, so it makes sense that melanoma is more likely to occur in older people. The average age a person receives a skin cancer diagnosis is 63. However, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30, especially younger women.

Sex

Before the age of 50, women have a higher risk of developing skin cancer than men. But after 50, men are at a greater risk.

Types of skin cancer

The American Cancer Society reports that each year, more than 6 million people in the United States receive a diagnosis with some form of skin cancer, making it the most common of all cancers.

The three major types of skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.

BCC appears on parts of the body that have been subjected to the sun. It seldom spreads to other parts of the body if detected and treated early. SCC is a fairly slow-growing skin cancer that can spread to tissues, bones, and lymph nodes, where it can become difficult to combat. However, when caught early, SCC is treatable.

Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body and is the fastest growing form of skin cancer. It can spread through the lymphatic system, blood vessels, or both, where it can reach the subcutaneous tissue, lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bone, or brain.

If melanoma is detected and treated early, it’s usually curable. However, once it spreads to other parts of the body, melanoma can be fatal.

The bottom (tan) line

While there’s no single product that’s perfect for all people, using sunscreen is one of the best ways to help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. If you’re planning to have fun in the sun this summer, get to know the sunscreen that’s best for your skin, slather it on, and slather it on often.