I’ve written a lot about sunscreen over the years, with good reason. It’s the #1 thing you can do to prevent damage to your skin, the largest organ in your body. That damage can result in cancer, but more superficially (and this is a beauty blog after all) who wants to deal with sunburn, freckling and hyperpigmentation and further down the road more photodamage induced aging? Not me!
Even if you have the best of intentions, chances are that you’re making at least one of these 12 sunscreen mistakes. Take notes!
1. You’re not using enough
That SPF number on your sunscreen bottle isn’t just randomly picked or calculated based upon some equation. It’s tested on real people in a set environment, and one of those set parameters is that the sunscreen is applied to be 2 mg/cm2 of skin surface area. That is a lot of sunscreen. For that average adult, you’ll need 30 mL (1 ounce, or a shot glass) of sunscreen
As a general rule:
• 1 ounce (30 mL) = 1 application to body
• 1 tsp (5 mL) = face
2. You’re Not Reapplying
So, the way that most sunscreen ingredients work (except for Zinc and Titanium Dioxide) is that they actually change their chemical shape when hit by the sun. This absorbs or bounces off the UV radiation before it can affect your skin, but it also inactivates the sunscreen. To keep this up, you need to reapply to make sure you have plenty of active sunscreen around. As well, sunscreen melts off (anyone ever sweat into their eyes while wearing sunscreen? OUCH!) so you’ll need to replace what’s displace.
Most dermatologists recommend reapplying your sunscreen every 2 hours. If you’re using the correct amount that means the bottle you bought for your beach vacation should last 3 applications or 6 hours in the sun, not an entire season.
3. You don’t use a high enough SPF
Most dermatologists recommend using at least SPF 15 everyday, though most would prefer SPF 30 (or even higher if you have a lot of sun exposure, are particularly fair skinned or have a history of skin cancer in yourself or your family). There are quite a few of us that usually buy right at that level and think we’re “being good.”
In truth, because so few of us are using the correct amount of sunscreen (let alone applying it), you aren’t getting the SPF value you think you are getting out of your sunscreen. In fact, you’re probably getting about 20-50% of the SPF value you purchased (study). As a general rule of thumb, many dermatologists use 30%. So, your SPF 30 is roughly a SPF 10 if you’ve applied it like most people.
Instead, you should buy the highest SPF you can stand to put on your skin and still use it!
4. Your sunscreen isn’t full UVA/UVB Spectrum Coverage
I have definitely been guilty of this one! Until fairly recently, a company could label a sunscreen as broad spectrum whether it was true or not. The typical consumer had no real way of knowing. With the new sunscreen labels in place in the US there are set standards for broad spectrum. (Read more about what is on a sunscreen label and how to read it).
While the new guidelines are better for deciding if a sunscreen does in fact cover both UVA and UVB rays, it’s possible to have UVAII rays not covered. I recommend checking your sunscreen for the active ingredients and then comparing to this chart of sunscreen UV coverage. I obtained the spectrum coverage information from the FDA, this is everything currently approved for use in the US. Print off a copy or carry it in the photos on your phone (which is what I do)!
5. You think that waterproof and sweat proof really = waterproof. It doesn’t.
So, back in those new sunscreen label guidelines that the FDA put out, they fixed the whole waterproof/sweatproof thing. It used to be that neither term really meant anything since they didn’t have to be backed up. Instead, you’ll now find “water resistant” at 40 minutes and “very water resistant” at 80 minutes (read more about how the waterproofing in sunscreen is tested).
Even if you go swimming for 10 minutes and your sunscreen is water resistant, you should still reapply after getting wet.
6. Your sunscreen is older than your flip flops
Yes, it outdates! Toss it after a year. The easiest way to keep track is to just write the date you opened the bottle on it with a sharpie.
7. You miss spots
We’ve all been there. You come home from the beach to find that you have a strangely shaped burn right in the middle of your back.
That is much less likely to happen if you apply your sunscreen inside, at home, before putting on clothes. You can contort yourself however you want to reach that spot in the middle of your back, and since your bikini isn’t there to get in the way, you won’t be worried about getting sunscreen all over it and miss a big area around the straps.
Easily forgotten areas: The tips of your ears, the part in your hair and the backs of your hands.
8. Your sunscreen doesn’t have time to start working
This problem is also easily helped by applying at home before you get ready to head to the pool. Chemical sunscreens need 15-30 minutes to “set” and be fully absorbed into the skin before they’re fully effective. Physical sunscreens don’t need this extra time, but you should still apply before exposing yourself to the sun. (More about the difference between a chemical and physical sunscreen.)
9. Don’t use it everyday
Most people consider themselves sunscreen users if they wear it once every 1-2 weeks at the beach.
get exposed every day! UVA can travel through glass!
10. You have been relying on your makeup to give you daily sun protection
While it is true that the pigments found in much makeup (especially foundation) has some natural sun protection by acting as a physical sun screen, you probably aren’t using enough of it to really protect your skin. Remember the 2 mg/cm2 that a sunscreen needs to be for testing? That means you need to put about 5 mL (a teaspoon) of foundation over your entire face (which you likely aren’t doing). Powder is even worse, you need 1.2g of powder for the average face, which is about 30-50% of the entire product typically. Most women apply 0.085g (1/14th what they need to get the advertised SPF).
You’re much better off relying on a product that you do apply in the appropriate amount and location for your sunscreen. I usually use a SPF lotion each morning or apply a separate sunscreen. Anything I get from makeup is considered a bonus.
11. Don’t forget your lips!
Yes, they do burn. The lips have less protection than the rest of your skin, and it can be very painful when they are burned! Wear sunscreen lip balm
12. You’re not using sunscreen!
Just because you apply sunscreen when you’re heading outside to the beach or pool doesn’t mean you are a good sunscreen user. Multiple studies have found that correct and daily use of SPF 15 is better for your skin (aka- less damage is caused by the sun) than intermittent use of a much higher SPF.
So, apply every day and increase your SPF value during peak sun hours (10am-2pm) and high UV index days.
I haven’t even touched on using UPF clothing, window shields, or other ways to protect your skin from the sun. Which of these have you been doing wrong?
Find more information about how sunscreens work, application tips and product reviews in my sunscreen guide