Sorry, but you're applying your sunscreen wrong

Don't get burnt by sunscreen

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In a world of wild weather that’s growing wilder by the day, one titan of temperature stands forever undefeated: The sun.

It’ll make you squint and make you sweat, but perhaps the worst thing the sun can do is make you sting with pain when it burns you at the beach, especially for pale people like myself who have given up any hope of getting tan and would rather be a lighthouse over a lobster.

Thankfully though, science has come up with a way to combat the big red burns in the form of sunblock, but very few of us are using it correctly. Whether it’s using too little or slathering it on and forgetting like I do, there are many mistakes made when it comes to sun safety.

We scoured the internet and even asked a medical professional, Dr. Joeseph Merola, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass., for his advice and got some concrete answers.

You’ll never win against the big yellow orb in the sky, but here’s how to come as close as humanly possible.

1. Pick the right sunscreen

Sun screen
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Everyone’s skin is different and so are everyone’s needs and preferences.

If you’re playing Wiffle Ball in your backyard, you may only need a spritz of sweat-proof spray to get you through the game, but if you’re going to the beach for a week, you may need a stuffed suitcase of SPF 50.

If you’re stocking up, make sure to get all different kinds of block, whether it’s spray, stick or lotion to cover every need. While the stick sunscreen often gets overlooked, it used to be a favorite of my family’s to use on our faces instead of accidentally rubbing lotion in our eyes.

Then there comes the choice of what SPF to get. SPF stands for “sun protective factor” and the number determines how long you can spend in the sun without burning as opposed to not wearing any block at all. Wearing SPF 15 means you can spend 15 times longer in the sun and not burn than if you didn’t wear any at all.

Dr. Joseph Merola: “In general, the higher the SPF, the better. It will decrease the need to re-apply as frequently and give adequate protection during particularly heavy times of UV exposure. There is no downside to using a higher SPF from a skin-health standpoint.”

Of course there are a number of other factors that weigh in as well such as skin type and complexion, where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, what you’re doing and much more.

There’s broad-spectrum sunscreen to stop UVA and UVB rays, sweat-proof and water-proof (or as close as possible to it) sunscreen and plenty of other variations to fit your exact need.

For the beach, I choose SPF 30 and re-apply every 30-ish minutes, though as I get older and wiser while staying just as pale, that time has trimmed down. But more on re-applying later.

Merola: “The product that a consumer finds the most comfortable, appealing and easy to apply is the best one for them, in general. Sunscreen only works if you actually apply it; and if you don’t like it, you are far less likely to apply it, and apply it often. In general the physical blocking sunscreens may leave the skin looking a bit more ‘white or pasty’; these include sunscreens that contain as their primary ingredients, ‘titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.’ We tend to recommend and lean towards physical blocking sunscreens. These are often labeled as ‘baby sunscreen’ or in ‘sensitive skin’ formulations. They add the benefit of being broad spectrum UVA/UVB protectants.”

2. Make sure to check the date on your sunscreen

Two of my biggest faults are pulling a bottle of sunscreen out of a cabinet or a beach chair for the first beach day of the year and not bothering to check the date.

The worst was the stringy and clumpy sunscreen I pulled out of the center console of my car.

Once expired, sunblock can become ineffective over time and there can’t be anything worse than lathering up with smelly, gross lotion only to have it not work.

To make sure the sunblock is: 1. Still usable and 2. Ok for your skin, try dabbing some on your wrist and letting it rest for a bit. If all goes normally, you’re good to apply.

3. Apply sunscreen before going outside

Applying sunscreen
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The best way to put on sunscreen is to apply before you go out in the sun and give it enough time to set in. This means waiting about 30 minutes before going out in the sun, or especially before going in any kind of water.

Of course, we aren’t always afforded this luxury, but I would always apply before driving to the beach or a pool, which would give it plenty of time to set in. Once there though, I would re-apply to make sure none rubbed off from my shirt or the seat in the car.

And when you apply, make sure to use a lot. My sunblock intake has gone up exponentially as I’ve realized trying to get a tan is useless.

There are many methods people have of spreading sunscreen, but putting a blob in your hand and spreading it directly on the spot you want to hit until you can’t see it anymore is the safest way to know you didn’t miss anything.

As for spray, like above, make sure to use a lot and don’t be afraid to spray over twice. One method I use to apply spray to my face is to spray into my hand then rub, but it takes a few layers to make sure it’s covered.

Spray sunscreen
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Merola: “I tend to avoid spray-on sunscreen as we tend to use much much less than we are supposed to and the safety of inhaling these agents remains unclear. If the spray is preferred, one must spray enough to thoroughly wet the skin as though applying a liquid sunscreen and spread generously to cover all exposed areas adequately. DO NOT apply near open flames including during the BBQ cookout!”

Also, make sure you hit everything. My bad spots are my ears, around my armpits, my knees (front and back) and the tops of my feet. If it’s going to be exposed to the sun, even indirectly or only for a few minutes, cover it. It’ll save you pain down the line.

Merola: “[Apply] generously and with frequent re-application. A partner may be required to help get to those difficult-to-reach back locations.”

4. Re-apply every two hours

Sunblock
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This is where people get in trouble.

As I’ve matured, along with increasing the amount of sunblock I put on, I’ve increased how many times I re-apply. With my pale skin, any time I feel anything I put more on but re-applying every two hours after is your best bet.

Of course, if you’re going in water or sweating, etc., you’re going to want to account for that too.

Merola: “This depends on activity level, sweating, water-exposure, UV index, SPF etc. In general, every 2 hours with a higher SPF product. Importantly NO product is waterproof! Water-resistant products exist, but after swimming, one should re-apply.”

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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