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How to Choose and Apply Sunscreen

Bottle of sunscreen lotion on the sandy beach
VRstudio/Shutterstock

Summer’s sweltering sun is just around the corner. Whether you can’t wait to play in the rays or will be doing your best to beat the heat, there’s one thing everyone needs for the sunny months: sunscreen.

Wait—don’t dig out your trusty old sunscreen from its drawer just yet. There are lots of mistakes people make when it comes to using sunscreen, and these mistakes can leave you unprotected from the cancer-causing rays. You might need to change the sunscreen you use, or the way you put it on, to get the best results.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to choose and apply sunscreen so that it actually protects your skin. Read this before you step into the light!

Who Needs Sunscreen?

If you’ve never had a sunburn, you’re probably thinking, “Sunscreen isn’t for me.” Same goes for those who rarely burn and for people who live in places where the sun doesn’t come out much.

However, everyone needs sunscreen, even people who aren’t prone to sunburn and those who don’t spend much time in the sun. If you don’t burn, you’ll incur less damage from the sun, but anyone’s skin can get damaged with enough exposure, and no one is immune to skin cancer. Wearing sunscreen is important for everyone.

Your Guide to Buying Sunscreen

Store shelf with bottles of various brands of sunscreen products
Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

Sunscreens maintain their full effectiveness for about three years. This means the sunscreen you bought last year, or the year before, will still work this summer. (You should always check the expiration date to be sure.) But if it’s any older, you’ll need to go shopping.

However, you shouldn’t buy the first thing you see on the shelf. These tips will help you make the best possible choice to keep you safe in the sun.

Know Your Skin Type

Choosing a sunscreen that suits your skin type might not sound that important. However, if your sunscreen doesn’t sync well with your skin, you’ll be less likely to use it. That’s why one of the first things you should look for is a sunscreen that will treat your skin well.

Your body tends to be less sensitive than your face, so you might want to pick up two different sunscreens: one for your face and one for the rest of you. You can find formulas that work better for dry skin, oily skin, or combination skin. For example, gels and sprays sit lighter on oily skin, while a hydrating cream works well for dry skin.

For your face, pick up a sunscreen that’s specifically designed not to clog pores. If you have sensitive skin, test a new sunscreen with a sample before you buy it.

Check the SPF

The next most important thing for you to do is to check the SPF.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should wear a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Anything lower than that won’t protect you completely. However, you don’t need to go above SPF 50, since anything higher doesn’t add a significant boost in protection.

Look for “Broad Spectrum” Labels

Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” will protect you from both types of harmful rays: UVA and UVB. Although UVB rays are the most dangerous ones, UVA rays can still cause damage that you don’t want on your skin. You need broad spectrum sunscreen if you’re going to keep skin cancer and sun-related aging at bay, not just sunburns.

Pick Something Water Resistant

A water-resistant sunscreen lasts longer, even if you’re just sweating, not actually going in the water. However, no sunscreen is completely waterproof. You’ll still need to reapply your water-resistant sunscreen frequently to make it keep working.

Buy Large Quantities

If you’re using and reapplying your sunscreen as often as you should be, you’ll go through it fast. Don’t be afraid to stock up when you find something you like—after all, it will last for three years.

How to Apply Sunscreen Safely

Young woman applying sunscreen outside on a summer day
TierneyMJ/Shutterstock

Now that you’ve found the best sunscreens for your face and body, here’s how to apply them right and stay safe in the sun.

  • Shake the Bottle: Sometimes, your liquid sunscreen will separate. Shake it well before applying to make sure the protective ingredients are mixed in thoroughly.
  • Apply Early and Often: It will take some time for the product to take full effect, so putting on sunscreen about 30 minutes before you go into the sun is a good rule. Bring your sunscreen with you when you leave the house, too—you’ll also need to reapply it. Typically, reapplying every two hours is safe, but if you get sweaty or get in the water, you should apply a fresh coat after you towel off.
  • Lay It on Thick: Put on more than you think you need to. A too-thin layer won’t offer you complete protection. Make sure that layer hits every part of your body that might see the sun—don’t neglect your feet, back, and other hard-to-reach areas.

Sunscreen Tips for Your Face

mother smears on her daughter sunscreen on the beach
yurakrasil/Shutterstock

When using sunscreen on your face, you’ll need a slightly different approach. In addition to the steps above, use these tips to protect your face from sun-related damage.

  • Wear It Every Day: No matter how bundled up you are, your face is always exposed to the sun. Even if the sun is behind the clouds and it’s the middle of winter, put a product with sunscreen in it on your face.
  • Be Careful with Layering: It’s normal to layer your sunscreen with other products. However, the mix can dilute the sunscreen and make it less effective. For the best results, try to keep layering to a minimum: if you can, find a sunscreen that you can wear alone. If you want to wear other products, put your sunscreen on first and let it dry completely before layering them on.
  • Apply It Directly: Put the sunscreen on your face directly, rather than on your hands first. Then, use your fingers to blend it in. This helps ensure proper absorption.
  • Reapply When You Can: Reapplying sunscreen to your face is a bit more difficult if you wear makeup or other products over it. Try to find a product with SPF, like a mineral powder or setting spray, that you can apply throughout the day to boost your sunscreen coverage without messing up your look.
  • Take Care with Your Eyes: Applying regular sunscreen directly around your eyes can lead to stinging and burning. However, your eyes need sun protection too. Look for an eye cream with SPF, in addition to your regular facial sunscreen.

How to Store Sunscreen

Finally, the way you store your sunscreen when you’re not using it also makes a difference in how well it works.

The main issue is that sunscreen degrades when exposed to heat. This means you should keep it out of the direct sun if you’re at the beach, and away from sources of heat in your home during winter.

You should also keep sunscreen away from light and humidity. Storing it in a cool, dark, dry place, like your cooler at the beach, or your closet at home will ensure your sunscreen protects your skin well each time you use it.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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