What's the one thing you can do to improve your skin?

Getting Beautiful Skin Image Gallery If there's one thing that'll help keep your skin baby-smooth and healthy, it's sunscreen. See more getting beautiful skin pictures.
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You're going to be stranded on a desert island with a single skin care product. What do you bring?

OK, not the most likely scenario, but it illustrates a point: Some products are more crucial than others. With all the skin care options on the market these days, it's hard to imagine picking just one. A daily regimen (for females, at least) can consist of five or six products. How can you pick a solitary bottle from all the serums, creams, lotions, spot treatments and cleansers for dry skin, acne, uneven tone, oiliness, fine lines and wrinkles?

It's actually not that hard. One product can single-handedly preserve your beauty, save your life, and should be used by everyone regardless of age, skin type or gender.

It's sunscreen, and it's the single most important thing you can do for your skin, even if you're only stranded in your house. Sun exposure is responsible for many of the visible signs of aging, like wrinkles and age spots, and it also can lead to the most deadly form of skin cancer. Applying sunscreen daily can provide serious long-term benefits.

Yet most people leave their skin unprotected. One-third of U.S. adults never wear sunscreen, and almost the same number don't put it on the kids before they head out to play [source: Hellmich]. This despite the fact that doctors diagnose 1 million new cases of skin cancer each year in the United States, and antiwrinkle treatments are a $1.6 billion industry [sources: AAD, Harmon].

In this article, we'll find out exactly why sunscreen is such a crucial addition to any skin care arsenal, see which kind is best one for your particular skin type and learn how to properly apply the stuff so it actually protects your skin from sun damage.

We'll begin at the surface of the issue: Sunscreen makes skin look better, and look better longer.

For Beauty

Most people know that sunbathing takes a toll on the skin's appearance, often in the form of a slow conversion to leather. It makes sense -- anything that can cause skin to blister is probably doing a fair amount of long-term damage. The more surprising fact is that the sun's rays can harm your skin in the 20 minutes it takes to walk the dog -- even on a cloudy day. (Eighty percent of the sun's rays make it through those clouds [source: AAD].)

Much of what we characterize as "premature signs of aging" is caused by sunlight [source: SkinCarePhysicians]. Exposure to the sun's two types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB, contributes to freckles, wrinkling, age spots, spider veins, blotchiness, thickened patches and leathery texture. UV light damages both collagen and elastin, which help support the structure of the skin so it doesn't sag. With extended UV exposure, the skin is less and less able to repair itself, so over time the skin becomes irreversibly loose, tough and discolored.

All in all, this "photoaging" makes us look older than we really are, and it can be avoided with regular sunscreen use. Doctors recommend using at least SPF (sun protection factor) 15 for the most basic protection from sun damage, and it's important to make sure the sunscreen is broad-spectrum, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB. Fifteen is just the minimum, though: In general, the fairer the skin, the higher the recommended SPF. Someone with a very fair complexion might go for an SPF 50 (and wear a hat at all times).

Perhaps the most important element in a sunscreen, though, is suitability for your skin type and lifestyle, since you have to be willing to apply it every day. For dry skin, look for a moisturizing sunscreen or a moisturizer with built-in SPF. For an oily complexion, try a product that contains silica, which helps give skin a matte finish. Sensitive skin will do best with a hypoallergenic product. If you sweat a lot, choose a "sport" sunscreen -- it won't sting if it drips into your eyes.

While lots of people use sunscreen to save their skin from photoaging, that's really just the beginning. Sun protection can save a lot more than your looks.

For Health

Sun protection can save a lot more than your looks.
Sun protection can save a lot more than your looks.
Photo courtesy of U.S. FDA

The power of the sun should not to be underestimated. More people in the United States end up with skin cancer than any other type [source: NIH]. One million cases are diagnosed annually, and some of them are melanoma, the most deadly of the skin cancers [source: AAD]. Using sunscreen -- and using it properly -- goes a long way toward preventing these health conditions.

Sunscreen actually blocks the sun's rays from penetrating the skin, either by reflecting or scattering it, so it can't cause cell damage. Both UVA and UVB can contribute to the development of skin cancer, so a broad-spectrum sunscreen is the best type. But even the best sunscreen only works if people use it as directed. Most people don't.

First, active ingredients don't immediately take full effect. Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you'll be in the sun. Also, sunscreen wears off and loses potency, so you need to reapply it every two hours and after swimming or sweating. Apply it liberally -- it should take an ounce to cover all of your exposed areas, which includes hands, face (including lips! -- look for an SPF lip balm), neck, ears, forearms and any other part not covered by clothing. Also, don't mix it with moisturizer before rubbing it in, since you're basically diluting the active ingredients.

And finally, contrary to logic, you don't have to be outside in the sun to be exposed to sunlight. Some of the sun's rays -- the UVA ones -- can make it through glass windows. So being indoors is no reason to skip the daily application.

The best approach is to simply make sunscreen a part of your morning routine: Don't leave the bathroom without it. Just think of applying sunscreen as being as crucial as brushing your teeth, because it is. Your healthy, young-looking skin will thank you for it.

For more information on sunscreen and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • "Causes of Aging Skin." SkinCarePhysicians.http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/basicfacts.html
  • "Facts About Sunscreens." American Academy of Dermatology.http://www.aad.org/media/background/factsheets/fact_sunscreen.htm
  • Harmon, Katherine. "Treating Wrinkles with Cutting-Edge Technology--Without Going Under the Knife." Scientific American. May 8, 2009.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=anti-aging-treatment-science
  • Hellmich, Nanci. "A third don't wear sunscreen; here's what rest like to spray on." USATODAY. May 21, 2009.http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-05-20-sunscreen-cancer_N.htm
  • "How to Find Your Perfect Sunscreen." Glamour.http://www.glamour.com/beauty/2009/05/how-to-find-your-perfect-sunscreen#slide=1
  • Karns, Marie. "Get the Skinny on Sunscreen." MSNBC.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3076469/
  • "Sunscreen: How To Select, Apply, and Use It Correctly." CDC.http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5104a3.htm