Few things are less cool than returning from vacation with a raccoon face. Deciding which sun-protection products are worth the slather, however, is no simple undertaking. So SKI persuaded the ski patrol at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., to do it for you. The patrollers tested seven top products, judging each by its ease of application, feel and endurance. The categories were rated on a scale of 1 ("I'd rather fry") to 5 ("Sun-sational").
Click the slideshow below for the sunscreen test results.
What's the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?
A sunblock deflects the sun's rays, thanks to ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It's often oilier than sunscreen, more time-consuming to apply and sometimes doesn't fully vanish into the skin. A sunscreen filters the sun's rays, minimizing their effects. It's usually invisible after application but sometimes needs to be reapplied throughout the day because it can wash off more easily than a thicker sunblock.
Which product will best protect my skin? Consumers often choose sunscreen based on its SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor. The theory goes that the higher the number, the longer it will take for you to burn. So if you're wearing an SPF 15, it should take you 15 times longer to get a sunburn than it would if you wore no sunscreen at all, while an SPF 30 would protect you for 30 times as long. Starting Jan. 1, 2005, the Food and Drug Administration will not allow any sun product to be labeled higher than a "30+" because the additional protection benefits of an SPF higher than 30 are negligible.
However, SPF is only part of the protection story. It measures how well a product works against UVB rays, which are the primary sunburn culprit. But it doesn't address how well a product battles UVA rays, which are thought to be the main cause of the more aggressive forms of skin cancer. There is currently no standard to measure UVA protection. To further complicate matters, there are two kinds of UVA rays: long-wave and short-wave. Most sun-protection products today only shield you from UVB and short-wave UVA rays, though the long-wave rays are the most damaging. For protection from long-wave UVA rays, look for products containing either zinc oxide or avobenzone.