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Dermatologist Explains 6 Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes

Dermatologist Explains 6 Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes

How to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays this summer

Correctly applying a high SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed skin is the best way to prevent sun damage. But, have you burned or tanned when you thought you were protected? Most of us have. I’ve seen it happen to my patients over and over again in my 30+ years practicing dermatology. Here is my top list of mistakes that my patients and I have learned from years of experience using sunscreen:

Top sunscreen mistakes to avoid:

1. Using expired sunscreen.

Sunscreen is classified by the FDA as a drug and has a shelf life. Sunscreen expires, and there is an expiration date stamped on every tube. Throw out old sunscreen that has expired. You should also throw out sunscreen that’s been stored at temperature or climate extremes as the formula and actives may have broken down. Chemical UV-active-filter ingredients are particularly fragile. Some actually break each other down as the formula sits in the container.

Solution: At the start of the sunny season, check your sunscreen expiration dates. Use only fresh sunscreen that’s not expired. Discard any sunscreen that looks like it may have seen dicey storage conditions even if the expiration date has not passed.

2. Not putting enough sunscreen on.

The protection factor of sunscreens is dependent on the dose of product you apply. Most people don’t put enough on, meaning that SPF 50 sunscreen is not giving you SPF 50 protection. Studies show that people apply 25-50% of the correct amount of sunscreen to their skin. Don’t let that be you if you are depending on the protection.

Solution: Adults need to apply 1 oz (a shot glass) of product to their skin when wearing a bathing suit. The face and front of the neck needs an average of a 5-cent-piece amount. That’s about 1/3 to ½ tsp of product depending on your hairstyle and clothing. It does not include scalp.

Yes, all this is based on an average person’s surface area of skin. Scale up or down if you think that you may have more or less the national average – but be careful to get enough sunscreen on. Then, look and see how good your protection was. Did you tan? If so, you need to put more product on. A tan indicates skin was damaged by UV rays.

3. Not reapplying every 2 hours and after swimming, sweating or rubbing product off.

Sunscreen comes off so you need to reapply it. It also breaks down as it blocks UV rays. Chemical UV-filters (oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, ecamsule, etc.) definitely break down quickly. Each ray blocked degrades chemical filters because that’s how these filters work. Mineral filters (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) bounce and scatter rays and are more stable. They do eventually break down.

Solution: When relying on sunscreen to protect your skin, you need to reapply every 2 hours while in the sun – inconvenient, but true. You also need to reapply it when it’s washed or rubbed off your skin.

4. Only wearing sunscreen on sunny days or for mid day sun exposure.

Clouds don’t block UV rays enough to help prevent sun damage. Also, UVA is out all day – sun up to sun down this ray is out and ready to damage your skin. The damage is more subtle because UVA is less apt to sunburn your skin. It does cause skin thinning, wrinkling, sun spots, and skin cancer, though that takes time.

Solution: Get in the habit of putting sunscreen on exposed skin every morning.

5. Depending on the sunscreen in your makeup or moisturizer to give you protection.

If this is you, ask yourself 3 questions:

  • Do you really put ¼ to ½ tsp of those products on every day or do you use less? Remember, the amount of sunscreen product you apply is important and directly correlates with SPF protection. Is your application of moisturizer or makeup guided by other goals such as how your skin feels or looks? Could this lead you to apply too little product to be getting the stated SPF?
  • Read the UV active ingredient filters. Are they zinc oxide? Usually not. Often, the UV filters in makeup and moisturizer are chemical filters that expire and provide poor protection in the first place.
  • What is the SPF stated on the product? Is it 30+ and broad spectrum? That’s what you want for sun protection. Very few makeup and moisturizer products are boasting high SPF protection.

Solution: Use a real SPF 30+ broad spectrum sunscreen applied in the correct amount. Separate your moisturizing step and makeup step from your sunscreen step. Look at your skin care routine as a layering of products that yields a final look and feel to your skin that you like. In that layering process, include a really top-notch sunscreen. Remember, Complete Skin Care during the day involves the essential steps of Cleanse, Correct, Hydrate, Protect. Makeup is layered on top. The only exception is that if you are using a sunscreen, applied in the correct amount, that also hydrates your skin and provides a nice tinting that doubles as makeup. Then, you are well-protected. But, sunscreen must be dosed appropriately.

6. Depending entirely on sunscreen for sun protection.

Sunscreen is a lot of work. An adult in a bathing suit, applying 1 oz every 2 hours goes through a 4 oz tube during a full day outside. It’s impractical, and it’s a lot of product. Have you heard the concern about absorbing chemical UV active sunscreen agents? It’s trending this year. The FDA never intended for people to apply this much sunscreen. I never recommended it either. Use multiple strategies to protect your skin.

Solution: Wear sun protective clothing (not just a t-shirt, you need UPF 50 clothing when you are in extreme UV exposure settings). If you are in and out of the sun on an average day, your regular clothing may be adequate. But, look and see if you are tanning through it. I’ve done full skin exams for years, and believe me, the back and arms tan through light summer fabric.

Apply sunscreen on all exposed skin. Use only broad spectrum SPF 30+ zinc oxide sunscreen. Reapply it as directed.

Shade your skin with a hat and sun umbrella, and try to stay in the shade.

Know your exposure. You’ll be surprised to know that UV rays bounce into your shade and some come through window glass. My Detecto Ring is a fun learning tool.

Click here to see the sun protection products my patients and I have put to the test... they work!

These products are based on the comprehensive, sun protection strategy I just outlined , and they will provide you and your family with dermatologist-approved smart sun protection.