Do You Know How to Properly Use Sunscreen? Probably Not

sunscreen sunburn mistakes
With the weather getting warmer, in all likelihood you’re going to be breaking out the sunscreen soon, if you haven’t already done so. The problem is that you probably aren’t using your sunscreen correctly, along with making some assumptions about it which are completely wrong.

Using the product correctly can be a life and death decision. There are roughly 3.5 million people diagnosed with skin cancer each year, with the incidence of all skin cancers, including melanoma which is the deadliest type, increasing. If applied correctly, sunscreen can be an effective way to help prevent this disease. The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is perfectly illustrated with the proper use of sunscreen. No matter how much you spend on sun protection, it will be far less expensive than what you’ll end up paying in medical care if you end up getting diagnosed with skin cancer.

Here are some of the ways you may be incorrectly using sunscreen:

Not Putting on Enough

If you’re like most people, you spread on a thin layer across the exposed areas of your body. The problem is this isn’t enough. There have been a number of major studies which all indicate most people only use one-quarter the amount of sunscreen they should for full protection. That’s right. You need to increase the amount you usually put on 300%. The next time you put a dab on your skin, increase it three times and you will be getting the proper protection. Another effective way to do this is to place on a second and third coat once you think you have finished. While there are plenty of products that you can use less of and get away with it, sunblock isn’t one of them. You need to use a lot more than you think you need to protect yourself. If you need motivation to do so, just remember that it’s the best anti-aging product out there.

Applying It Once a Day

A lot of people believe if they apply sunscreen in the morning, then they’re good for the entire day. Unfortunately, putting on sunscreen isn’t like taking a pill once a day or applying a medicine you only need to do once a day. Sunscreen will wear off, and it’ll wear off rather quickly. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, even if you aren’t swimming or sweating. Waterproof sunscreen also needs to be reapplied every two hours. If you don’t reapply it on a regular basis, the sunscreen that you put on at in the morning will be effectively gone by noon.

Believing a Higher SPF Allows You to Stay out Longer

There are quite a few people who believe that if you put on a high numbered SPF, you’re able to stay out longer in the sun than if you put on a lower SPF sunscreen. For example, they believe that 50 SPF allows you to stay out longer than 30 SPF. The problem, as mentioned above, is that no matter what SPF screen you’re using, it will wear off in a couple of hours. The higher SPF will block out more of the harmful rays while it’s on your skin, but it doesn’t allow you to stay out in the sun for longer periods of time without reapplying it.

You’re Getting the Protection Listed in the Sunscreen

Another huge assumption most people make is that they are actually receiving the SPF protection listed on the sunscreen. In a recent survey from Consumer Reports, 18 of 20 bottles of sunscreen tested came in at a lower level of protection than the bottle claimed. Most of these came in at somewhere between 4% and 40% less than the number that was listed on the bottle. That means that if you thought you were getting 30 SPF protection, you might actually be getting lower than 20 SPF protection, depending on the brand that you bought. In other words, to be safe, you should be purchasing higher SPF protection and assuming that it will be lower than advertised. If you want to make sure you’re getting 30 SPF protection, you should opt for a 50 SPF bottle. It’s not going to hurt you to have the extra protection if it’s as strong as advertised, but it will help protect your skin if it happens to give a lot less protection than is listed on the bottle.

Double the SPF Numbers Gives Double the Protection

There are a lot of people who believe if they use 30 SPF sunscreen, they are getting double the protection of 15 SPF, or those who opt for 100 SPF are getting more than three times the protection of 30 SPF. This isn’t how the numbering SPF system works. The AAD points out that no sunscreen can eliminate 100% of the harmful rays, but that there isn’t much of an increase in protection once you hit 30 SPF. Here’s the general guideline of the effectiveness of the different SPF numbers

  • 15 SPF blocks 93% of sun rays
  • 30 SPF blocks 97% of sun rays
  • 50 SPF blocks 98% of sun rays
  • 100 SPF blocks 99% of sun rays

15 SPF Is Acceptable

It wasn’t too long ago most doctors recommended 15 SPF as being strong enough. That is no longer the case with most dermatologists recommending 30 SPF or higher these days. Since many sunscreens contain less protection than they advertise, you probably want to go with something even stronger than 30 SPF. This is especially true if you have a family history of skin cancer, or you’re out and about in a place with which has especially intense sun like the in the desert, at altitude (there’s a 4% increase in UV exposure for every 1000 feet elevation gained), and the tropics (more sunlight is able to pass through the atmosphere the closer you’re staying to the equator).

Your Tan Helps Protect You

As the summer progresses and a tan forms from being out in the sun, many people believe that their tan helps protect them from sun damage. They believe their tan allows them to use a lower SPF sunscreen, or not apply it as often, and they will still be okay. Since they see a browning rather than a the typical redness from a burn, they think it’s okay. The problem is that your skin doesn’t get used to the sun over time, and the AAD notes there isn’t such a thing as a “safe tan.” In fact, having a tan is a sign you have sustained some damage to your skin.

Sunscreen Is the Primary Defense

Many people think of sunscreen as being the primary defense against the sun, but it should actually be a safeguard after other defenses have been put into place. The first line of defense should be to avoid the sun in the first place. If you are going to be outside where avoiding the sun is impossible, the second line of defense is to protect yourself from the sun. This means seeking shade where possible, using an umbrella or wide-brim hat to keep the sun from getting to your skin, and wearing sun-protective clothing. When these aren’t possible is when sunscreen comes into play, meaning that it’s actually a third line of defense, not the first.

You Don’t Need It on a Cloudy, Cool or Hazy Day

While it may not seem like you are in danger of getting burned on a cloudy day, the truth is that this is when many people do get bad sunburns because they don’t put on any sun protection. Even on a cloudy day, as much as 80% of ultra violet (UV) rays manage to pass through the clouds. If you happen to be in a place where there is ice, sand, snow or water, these can reflect the UV rays back toward you and burning you just as much as direct sunlight.

That You Need New Sunscreen Each Year (or Use It until It’s Gone)

There are usually two types of people when it comes to when to replace sunscreen. One believes that it needs to be replaced each year to be effective, while the other keeps bottles until the last little bit is used no matter how long that may be. Both are wrong. A sunscreen’s effectiveness lasts about three years after the bottle is opened. You don’t need to throw away all your sunscreen at the end of the season, but those bottles which have been around for a few seasons probably need to be replaced.

If you’re still not convinced that you should take more precautions to properly put on sunscreen, watch the following video. It’s a good reminder of why it’s important (and pass it along to all those young people in your life who could benefit from seeing it). While it’s aimed at those who are younger, it applies no matter how old you may be.

(Photo courtesy of bark)

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