Sunblock's glaring flaw

American-made sunscreens may be skimping on skin protection. Here's what you need to know.

The Claim: American-made sunscreens pale in comparison to their European counterparts when it comes to UVA protection—and as a result, many concerned beachgoers are opting to order sunscreens from afar.

The Truth:First of all, it’s important to know your UVA-B-Cs: That SPF number on your bottle corresponds to protection against UVB rays, the shorter-wavelength, higher-energy rays associated with summertime and sunburn, explains Jeannette Graf, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center and author of Stop Aging, Start Living. “UVA rays are the longer-wavelength, lower-energy rays, which means they reach deeper into the skin’s layers but don’t generate the same amount of heat energy as UVB rays. They are constant throughout the year.” Both types contribute to skin cancer.

While European brands of sunscreen contain a key UVA-blocking ingredient called Tinosorb, the FDA has yet to approve the ingredient here in the U.S. “There's a lot of buzz about Tinosorb because it appears to be more stable and a better blocker than the American ingredient, avobenzone, used to block the A,” explains New York City-based dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. “Tinosorb reportedly provides broad-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays by working to absorb, scatter and reflect the sun's UV rays.”

How to Maximize Your Coverage: If you are interested in importing a stronger block, experts recommend talking it through with your dermatologist first (“there’s not a lot of available research on European brands,” says Dr. Fusco). In the meantime, there are measures you can take to get the most complete protection possible from your go-to bottle.

*Go broad.Look for a label that offers “broad-spectrum coverage” – this means it contains both UVA- and UVB-blocking ingredients.

*Let it set in.Remember those childhood days of waiting a torturous 30 minutes to jump back into the pool, post-lunch? Same rule applies. Dr. Graf recommends applying your sunscreen a full half hour before sun exposure.

*Pair it with an antioxidant. “The addition of a topical antioxidant to a morning regimen—whether in the form of a separate product [such as a serum], or formulated with sunscreen—is recommended since the combination works synergistically to enhance protection,” says Dr. Graf, who also points out that the continued use of sunscreen slows the signs of aging. How about that for a bright side?