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The Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes You’re Making

Someone applies sunscreen
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It’s hard to underestimate the importance of sunscreen. Sunscreen helps protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, including sunburn, premature aging, and an increased risk of skin cancer.

Even if you own a bottle or two, you might be unknowingly making mistakes that hinder the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Here are some common SPF mistakes and how to correct them, with advice from a dermatologist.

Only Buying Sunscreen Lotion

A woman applies lotion to her face

Using only sunscreen face lotion (as opposed to two separate products) can be problematic for a few reasons. First, it may not fully protect your skin from the sun’s rays because sunscreen lotion usually has lower sun protection levels compared to dedicated sunscreens, said Dr. Nava Greenfield, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC. This means you could be at risk of sunburn and damage from UVA and UVB rays.

Many sunscreen lotions also do not contain the recommended SPF value. Dr. Greenfield advises never to buy a sunscreen product that is less than SPF 30. That SPF 8 face lotion in your bathroom isn’t going to do much for your skin.

To get the best sun protection, you should use a separate sunscreen and moisturizer. This way, you can effectively shield your skin from the sun, keep it hydrated, and address specific skin needs. Using separate products allows for better sun protection, proper moisturization, and the opportunity to target specific skin concerns for healthier and more nourished skin.

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Applying Too Little

Someone applies sunscreen
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com

To ensure effective sun protection, it is crucial to apply sunscreen generously and evenly across all exposed areas of the skin.

“Applying too little is a common mistake,” said Dr. Greenfield.

Many people tend to underapply sunscreen, resulting in patchy protection and increased vulnerability to harmful UV rays. For the face, head, and neck, it’s recommended that you apply a nickel-sized dollop, which is roughly equivalent to two finger lengths or half a teaspoon.

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“Don’t forget your ears, lips, and hairline, which are common locations for skin cancer development and oftentimes overlooked when applying sunscreen,” noted Dr. Greenfield.

Each arm and leg should be covered with about one teaspoon of sunscreen. The same goes for your chest, abdomen, back, and the back of the neck. When applying sunscreen to the entire body, it is generally recommended that you use at least a full ounce, which is equivalent to a shot glass.

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Forgetting to Reapply

A man applies sunscreen

According to Dr. Greenfield, most sunscreens lose their effectiveness after about two hours in sunlight. This time frame may be shortened if you’re swimming, sweating, or doing other activities that rub off the sunscreen.

To keep that protective barrier intact, reapply sunscreen every two hours or more frequently if you’ve been engaging in water activities or perspiring. You should reapply the same amount you applied during the first round. Yes, it can be a pain, but this is the surest way to protect yourself from sun damage.

Relying Solely on Sunscreen

A woman wears a sun hat

While sunscreen is invaluable when it comes to sun protection, relying solely on its efficacy isn’t the best way to protect yourself. To ensure full sun safety, don’t overlook the importance of sun-safe accessories as well.

Wearing things like wide-brimmed hats, UV-blocking sunglasses, and long-sleeve shirts can protect your skin even more effectively, especially if the rays are particularly strong.

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UV protection at its best, Omni-Shade materials block UVA and UVB rays to help prevent sunburns and long-term skin damage.

You can also seek out shade as much as possible to block the sun’s harmful rays when you’re outdoors.

Only Wearing Powder Sunscreen

A woman applies powder foundation
Supavadee butradee/Shutterstock.com

While powder sunscreen can be a convenient makeup and sun protection combo, especially when it comes to reapplication, relying solely on it can leave your skin unprotected. The main issue is that it’s challenging to achieve sufficient coverage with powder alone. If you are able to apply the powder generously on your face and reapply every two hours, it can be effective, said Dr. Greenfield.

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You will also need to keep the SPF level in mind when buying powder sunscreen. You should still try to buy products with at least SPF 30, or ideally higher, coverage. If you’re able to find a product that meets this criteria, powder sunscreen can be a great way to reapply sunscreen on your face and scalp, especially if you hate the feeling of traditional sunscreen products.

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SPF is your skin’s BFF. These tips from a dermatologist will help you avoid common sunscreen mistakes and keep your skin protected from those sunny rays.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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