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Use sunscreen to ward off cancer 'epidemic'—but choose wisely

Ready to have fun in the sun this summer? After breaking out the bikini and packing up the cooler, don't forget to apply the sunscreen.

More than 5 million cases of skin cancer get diagnosed annually—and according to the American Cancer Society that number is more than breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer cases combined.

Experts say it means would-be sunbathers need to be more vigilant about taking precautions.

"Unfortunately, I would call it an epidemic that we're going through right now," Dr. Deborah Sarnoff, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, told CNBC's "On the Money" in an interview.

To ensure better skin protection, Sarnoff recommends a comprehensive program that includes a hat, sunglasses, seeking shade and avoiding peak hours in the sun.

"And the clothing that protects is key," she added. Of course, if you can't cover up, Sarnoff said sunscreen is the next best thing. Yet 53 percent of people surveyed by Consumer Reports said they rarely or never use sunscreen.

"You have to think about sunscreen the way you do brushing your teeth or any of your other grooming activities. That even goes for cloudy hazy days, and it goes for all year long," said Dr. Sarnoff.

Thousands of brands, few of them effective

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Photo: Badger

Not all sunscreens are created equally and effectively. Consumer Reports found there are about 8,000 brands on the market, from lotions to sprays to sticks, with various levels of protection and ingredients.

An SPF, or sun protection factor, of 30 is the minimum recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. The number represents a relative measure of how long you can stay in the sun before getting burned. So, if a person normally burns in 10 minutes, an SPF 30 would give them 30x 10 minutes in the sun, if applied correctly.

Consumer Reports put more than 50 sunscreens to the test, all with SPF 30 or higher, to see if they met their advertised SPF claims listed on the bottle.

The results were dismal.

"We found that 43 percent of them did not meet their SPF claim," Trisha Calvo of Consumer Reports told CNBC. "Some of them missed it by a little bit and some of them missed it by a long shot."

Which products fared well?

For lotions, Consumer Reports recommends LaRoche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In (about $35.99 for a 5 oz), as well as Pure Sun Defense Disney Frozen SPF 50 (about $6.30 for 8 oz). While the latter is packaged for kids, Calvo said, "there's no reason why an adult can't use it."

For sprays, the publication found Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+ ($6 for 6 oz) and Banana Boat Suncomfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+ (about $10 for 6 oz) were the most successful in meeting their claims.

If those specific products aren't available, there are still some guidelines to follow to find an effective sunscreen.

After four years of testing, Calvo said her organization came to the conclusion "you should look for a sunscreen with an SPF of 40 or higher with chemical active ingredients like avobenzone because that will give you the best chance of getting an SPF 30."

Caveat emptor

Sunbathers apply UV filter cream on their bodies.
Martin Bernett | AFP | Getty Images
Sunbathers apply UV filter cream on their bodies.

While higher SPF sunscreens provide slightly more protection, no SPF blocks all ultraviolet (UVB) rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent, the Skin Cancer Foundation notes.

Also "broad spectrum" is key. That means it will protect against UVA and UVB rays, with the former being the most potent.

UVB rays are responsible for causing skin to burn and are the chief cause of skin cancer. However, prolonged exposure to UVA rays which penetrate deeper into the skin can lead to wrinkles and can also contribute to skin cancer.

"I recommend that you look at your own skin every month, what we call a self-exam," said Dr. Sarnoff. If you find something, she said do not hesitate to seek attention.

"The really nice thing about specializing in skin cancer is that it's curable. Early detection, it's 100 percent curable."

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.