How Often You Should Apply Sunscreen, and Other Sunscreen Tips

These 15 tips will help protect you from the sun.

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You probably know that you should use sunscreen to help reduce your risk of skin cancer and to prevent pesky wrinkles, dark spots, and other signs of premature aging. But you may not know that since 2019 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been warning that some sunscreens could be potentially harmful. The FDA is concerned that we don't know enough about the long-term effects of certain ingredients in some sunscreens. Dermatologists, however, still say that lathering up before spending time outdoors is a must—despite these concerns. "Sunscreen is one of the major components of sun protection," Noelani González, MD, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology at Mount Sinai West in New York, explained to Health. Yet even people who do slather it on religiously may not be aware of the best practices for using sunscreen. These 15 tips will help you truly protect yourself from UV rays.

01 of 15

Apply Sunscreen Before Going Outside

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How many people have you seen get to the beach, spread out their blankets, strip down to their swimsuits, and then start applying sunscreen? "You actually want to apply your sunscreen 30 minutes prior to exposure," explained Jeannette Graf, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. That way, it has time to get absorbed and start working—so you don't get UV exposure during the time when your skin is vulnerable.

02 of 15

Apply Sunscreen Before Getting Dressed

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Skin cancer can strike anywhere, so it's best to apply sunscreen when you're buck naked. Otherwise, "if you already have a swimsuit or clothing on, you're likely to apply it gingerly so you don't get it on your clothes, which makes you likely to miss a spot or not apply liberally enough," says Noelle Sherber, MD, a dermatologist in private practice and clinical associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Apply sunscreen in front of a full-length mirror, Dr. Sherber said, which "helps ensure you entirely cover tricky spots like the mid-back and backs of the legs." (And you should apply before going outside anyway, right?)

03 of 15

Protect Your Lips

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Just like the rest of your skin, lips are vulnerable to UV rays, so it's extremely important to use sunscreen on your mouth, Dr. Graf said. But don't use the same stuff you use on the rest of your body—it tastes weird and won't last that long on your lips anyway. So try a lip balm with SPF, which is thicker so it stays on longer. "Then reapply even more frequently than you do body sunscreen, since talking, eating, and drinking removes the sunscreen on your lips faster," Dr. Graf explained.

04 of 15

Apply Sunscreen in Frequently Missed Spots

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Think you can smear sunscreen on your nose like a 1950s lifeguard and be covered? Unfortunately, there are a lot of less-obvious areas people tend to forget—and they're just as important to protect, Dr. Graf said. "The most commonly missed areas are toes and feet, including the bottoms of your feet; underarms; back of the neck under the hairline; ears, especially the tops and back of your ears; eyelids; and inner upper arms." Put that sunscreen everywhere.

05 of 15

Choose Sunscreen Based on Your Activity

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The small print on your sunscreen label matters, so make sure you're choosing the right sunscreen for your activity, especially if that activity involves sweat, a pool, or the ocean. "Make sure you get a water-resistant formulation for swimming or activities where you'll perspire because non-water-resistant formulas can slide right off," Dr. Sherber said. "Plus, they tend to migrate into eyes and sting, whereas water-resistant ones won't."

06 of 15

Use the Right Sunscreen for Your Face

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It's not just a marketing gimmick: There is a difference between face- and body-specific sunscreens. "Facial skin is generally more sensitive to irritation than body skin, so face formulations have been tested to cause less irritation and not trigger acne," Dr. Sherber said. "If you're acne-prone or sensitive, avoid the body versions for your face, especially the dry-touch sprays—they're absolutely full of alcohol, which is very drying and irritating for facial skin."

07 of 15

Use Sunscreen on Cloudy Days

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It may seem counterintuitive to slather on sunscreen on a gray or drizzly day, but you can get UV exposure without ever seeing the sun in the sky, Dr. Graf said. Eighty percent of UV rays still come through on cloudy days, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), so don't let the weather determine your sunscreen use—apply it every day.

08 of 15

Apply Enough Sunscreen

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The old rule about using a shot glass worth of sunscreen every time you apply still holds up, Dr. Graf said. (That's about 1.5 ounces.) Experts also said a nickel-size dollop is the right amount for your face. From the neck down, 2 mg of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin is necessary, which is the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons. But now that more people are opting for continuous spray formulas, it can be hard to tell if you're getting enough coverage. To make sure you're using sprays correctly, Dr. Graf suggested holding the can six inches from your skin and spraying nonstop until you can see the moisture covering the entire area. "Then rub it in—yes, even if the bottle says you don't have to—so you don't miss spots," Dr. Graf said. "And repeat the spray a second time."

09 of 15

Use Sunscreen Everyday

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Unless you choose to spend your time in a windowless bunker, you're not protected from UV rays when you're inside. "Driving can be a major source of incidental exposure," Dr. Sherber said. "The windows and windshield block UVB rays so you don't see a sunburn, but UVA seeps right in, and that's the spectrum that causes most skin aging and skin cancer." Your best bet: apply sunscreen every morning, then feel free to sit by a window or take a drive! At the very least, use a moisturizer with SPF (sun protection factor) if you don't want to add another step to your daily routine.

10 of 15

Use a Broad-spectrum Formula

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It used to be that many sunscreens only blocked UVB rays, the high-energy kind responsible for sunburns. But shielding against UVA rays is just as important, Dr. Graf said, because they "penetrate the skin more deeply, are constant throughout the year, and cause premature aging." To be fully covered, look for sunscreens labeled "broad spectrum," which means they block UVA and UVB rays. And good news: these formulas are readily available nowadays.

11 of 15

Choose the Right SPF

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The SPF measures how well the sunscreen blocks out UVB rays—which primarily cause sunburns. The number tells you how long it would take to redden your skin versus the amount of time without it. For example, with SPF 15, it will take you 15 times longer to burn than if you were wearing nothing. So what number should you aim for?

Yes, tanning oil with SPF 8 technically is sunscreen, but it's just not enough protection. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15, while the AAD recommends SPF 30 or higher. But should you go higher? The AAD guidelines say they don't provide much more protection—SPF 30 blocks 97% of rays, while SPF 50 blocks just 1% more. However, they do have some additional benefit.

"They absorb more free radical-producing energy, so I recommend them for the summer," Dr. Graf said. One caveat before you reach for the SPF 100: "The super-high SPFs can provide a false sense of security—like you're protected for longer—but you need to reapply just as often as you would an SPF 30."

12 of 15

Toss Old Sunscreen

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If you're using enough sunscreen when applying—that shot glass-worth, or two coats of spray—then having bottles leftover from years past shouldn't be an issue. But if you happen to have a sunscreen bottle that's been around for two years or more, Dr. Graf said to toss it, since it can lose its effectiveness over time.

Shelf life varies from two to three years, depending on the formula you choose. Look at that date before you make your purchase, and continue to pay attention to it. The reason: Sunscreens don't always show obvious signs they are past their prime. Elizabeth Hale, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, also advised keeping track of where your bottle has been, saying "exposure to UV light and heat can degrade a product a lot faster. Avoid leaving a bottle in the car or in direct sunlight or even the bathroom, which tends to get humid."

13 of 15

Reapply Sunscreen Frequently

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It may feel like you did your due diligence by applying sunscreen once, but it's not a day-long cloak of immunity. Reapplying it is just as important as putting it on in the first place. How often? "Every 80 minutes, even if it's water-resistant," Dr. Graf said.

You should be layering on more SPF every two hours. And if you've gone for a swim (even if your SPF is water-resistant) or have been sweating excessively, reapply immediately after those activities. To be sure that you're covered head to toe, dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen before you get dressed and then reapplying to all exposed skin.

14 of 15

Wear Sunscreen Even in the Shade

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Seeking solace under a beach umbrella or an awning near the pool doesn't mean you're getting adequate protection from the sun. Why? Sand and water both reflect damaging rays, which means UV radiation still gets through when you're under a beach umbrella, "so you still have to apply sunscreen if you're sitting under cover," Dr. Graf said. A 2017 study found that 78% of participants who used an umbrella and no sunscreen got a sunburn in one or more areas. And even if you don't get a sunburn, you're still getting UV exposure.

15 of 15

Protect Your Eyes

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Sunglasses aren't just a fashion statement—they're critical to keeping your eyes safe from UV rays. Make sure your sunglasses offer UV protection because some inexpensive styles don't have the protective coating. "Without it, the dark lenses actually allow your pupils to dilate, allowing even more UV rays in, which can play a big role in cataract development," Dr. Sherber said. According to a 2021 study people who didn't wear sunglasses had a 57% higher incidence of cataracts. Finally, a health reason to buy a pair of nice shades!

A Quick Review

Although the FDA has concerns about the long-term effects of some ingredients in some sunscreens, dermatologists continue to strongly recommend applying sunscreen daily—regardless of whether it's a sunny or cloudy day and whether you spend the day inside or out, How often you re-apply sunscreen will vary based on your activities, but starting your day with a layer of sunscreen before getting dressed, wearing sunglasses when outdoors, and using lip balm with SPF are three habits that will go a long way in protecting your skin from the sun.

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Sources
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  1. Ou-Yang H, Jiang LI, Meyer K, Wang SQ, Farberg AS, Rigel DS. Sun protection by beach umbrella vs sunscreen with a high sun protection factor: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(3):304.doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.4922

  2. Chen LJ, Chang YJ, Shieh CF, Yu JH, Yang MC. Relationship between practices of eye protection against solar ultraviolet radiation and cataract in a rural area. PLoS One. 2021 Jul 29;16(7):e0255136. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0255136. PMID: 34324583; PMCID: PMC8321156.

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