While it’s true that sunscreen can protect your skin against the effects of the sun, but you’re just wasting your money — and risking your skin’s health — unless you apply it the right way.
“People who get sunburned usually didn’t use enough sunscreen, didn’t reapply it after being in the sun, or used an expired product,” says Amanda Friedrichs, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in Sycamore, Illinois. “It’s important that people take the time to choose an effective sunscreen and properly apply it.”
How to apply sunscreen for most effective protection
Dr Friedrichs recommends you follow these tips when using sunscreen to get the best coverage:
Apply sunscreen generously before going outdoors. It takes approximately 15 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you. If you wait until you are in the sun to apply sunscreen, your skin is unprotected and can burn.
Use enough sunscreen. Most adults need at least one ounce of sunscreen — about enough to fill a shot glass or the amount you can hold in your palm — to fully cover all exposed areas of your body. Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into your skin.
Apply sunscreen to all bare skin. Remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet and legs. For hard‐to‐reach areas like your back, ask someone to help you or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide‐brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with a SPF of at least 15.
Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating.
In addition to sunscreen, the Academy recommends wearing protective clothing, seeking shade, and avoiding tanning beds.
“Your skin is exposed to the sun’s harmful UV rays every time you go outside, even on cloudy days and in the winter, so remember to always use sunscreen when outdoors,” says Dr Friedrichs.
New sunscreen labeling rules
Being a savvy shopper when it comes to buying sunscreen should be a little easier now thanks to new product label requirements.
“Everyone, regardless of skin color, can get skin cancer, which is why it is important for people to properly protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays,” says board-certified dermatologist Zoe D Draelos, MD, FAAD.
Sunscreen labels are now required to provide consumers with information about whether a sunscreen will protect against skin cancer in addition to sunburn, and will also indicate whether or not the product is water-resistant. (Makeup and moisturizers containing sunscreen that meets the FDA’s testing standards also will include this new information on their labels.)
On the label, you’ll see whether the sunscreen:
Is broad spectrum, which means the sunscreen protects against UVB and UVA rays and helps prevent skin cancer and sunburn.
Has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. While SPF 15 is the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) minimum recommendation for protection against skin cancer and sunburn, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
Has a skin cancer/skin aging alert in the Drug Facts section of the label, which means the sunscreen will only prevent sunburn and willnot reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.
Is water-resistant for up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes, which means the sunscreen provides protection while swimming or sweating up to the time listed on the label. (Sunscreen manufacturers now are banned from claiming that a sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweat proof,” as the FDA has determined that those terms are misleading.)
With the new regulations, the FDA has clearly defined the testing required for a sunscreen to be labeled as “broad-spectrum.” For a sunscreen to carry the claim that it can help prevent skin cancer and early skin aging in addition to sunburn, it must offer both broad-spectrum coverage and an SPF of 15 or higher. If not, the label will carry the Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert specifying their sun-protective limitations.
“Sunscreen has always been an important tool in the fight against skin cancer, and these new regulations will greatly improve the consumer’s ability to make smart decisions — at a glance — about a product’s effectiveness simply by reading the label,” says Dr Draelos, a consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC.
At current rates, 1 in 5 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. If you notice anything changing, itching or bleeding on the skin, see a board-certified dermatologist.
Does your sunscreen have you covered? How to apply it right (video)
Here, see a demonstration of dermatologists’ tips for applying sunscreen for optimum protection.