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Applying Sunscreen the Right Way

Updated on June 15, 2011

On the plus side, the sun provides you with vitamin D and keeps you warm. The downside is that too much exposure to the sun can give you skin cancer. Every year over 2 million Americans are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer. Most of that is because of UV (ultraviolet) radiation. About 65% of melanoma, the deadly kind of skin cancer, can be attributed to UV radiation.

Sunscreen, also called sunblock, is your first line of defense against too much sun and skin cancer. But to be the most effective, you have to put on sunscreen the right way. Incorrectly apply sunscreen once and you can get sunburn. Incorrect application over time can result in skin cancer. So here's how to get that sunscreen on the right way.

SUNBURN!  by Coastie Wife 2008, on Flickr
SUNBURN! by Coastie Wife 2008, on Flickr | Source

The Bottom Line

If you read nothing else, here's what you need to know about applying sunscreen correctly.

  1. Buy new sunscreen.
  2. Read the label.
  3. Apply before you go into the sun.
  4. Apply to the right places on your body.
  5. Apply the correct amount of sunscreen.
  6. Reapply often.

Now let’s consider each of these in more detail.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Over time, sunscreen loses its power to protect you. And letting your bottle of sunscreen lie around in the sun will also shorten its life. Check the official expiration date of your sunscreen. It will often be found on the bottom of the sunscreen container. The safest thing to do is to start with a new container of sunscreen every summer.

Read the Label

Any decent sunscreen will have an SPF or Sun Protection Factor number listed on the bottle. This number refers to how well the sunscreen can block out the sun's rays.

An SPF of 15 will absorb 93% of ultraviolet radiation. Doubling the SPF doesn't double the protection. For example an SPF of 34 only increases the UV radiation absorption to 97%.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using at least SPF-15. A minimum of SPF-30 is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.

SPF 15 provides enough protection for an hour or two of exposure to the sun. If your skin is more sensitive, (e.g. you get freckles easily) you should definitely use a higher SPF sunscreen such as SPF 30 or SPF 50.

The sunscreen label should also say it protects against UVA and UVB. These are the types of ultraviolet radiation that are the most likely to cause skin cancer. As per recent (6/11) rules published by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), sunscreen that says broad spectrum will describe a sunscreen product that does an acceptable job of blocking both UVA and UVB rays.

In the future, the FDA will prohibit sunscreen marketing claims such as waterproof and sweatproof. Sunscreens that use water-resistance claims will have to explain how much time the sunscreen will be useful for.

Apply Before you Go Into the Sun

It is recommended that you apply the sunscreen before you go into the sun. Many people put on sunscreen after they get to the beach or pool which usually means that they've already been exposed to the sun before even putting the sunscreen on.

Sunscreen should be applied about 15 to 30 minutes before you actually go outside and start getting exposed to the sun. And if you put clothing on after you’ve applied the sunscreen, it can rub it off, so you may have to touch up some spots when you take your clothes off at the beach.

Apply to the Right Places on Your Body

Your skin should be dry and preferably cool when you apply the sunscreen. If your skin is sweating or already wet when you apply the sunscreen, it will be much less effective.

Use the sunscreen to cover any part of your body that will be exposed to the sun. Pay special attention to areas such as shoulders, chest, your face, and even the tops of your feet that will get the most exposure to the sun.

If you're going to put makeup or bug spray on, put the sunscreen on first so that it's touching your skin directly.

Apply the Correct Amount

If you want to get adequate protection from the sun you must apply the correct amount of sunscreen. The recommended amount is 1 ounce with maybe an additional teaspoon for your face and neck. Tests have shown that most of us underestimate how much 1 ounce is, resulting in many of us getting less protection from the sun.

I have read that an ounce is a shot glass full of sunscreen. But most of us don't take a shot glass to the beach, pool, or baseball game.

One of the more sensible recommendations I read about was to squeeze a strip of sunscreen on your index finger and another one on your middle finger, then rub it into just one of the areas on your body you want to cover, such as your right arm. You then do this for each of the major areas of your body.

If you think this is too much sunscreen, you can use only one finger worth. But this could result in your SPF 30 becoming an SPF 15.

You may be thinking that if you use at least 1 ounce of sunscreen each time you're in the sun and the bottle you buy is 8 ounces, you're going to run out of sunscreen pretty quickly. That’s probably true. But the cost of buying a bottle of sunscreen is a lot less than the medical bills for skin cancer.

Reapply Often

You should re-apply your sunscreen at least every two hours. If you go swimming, you should reapply sunscreen after you dry yourself off. This is true even if your sunscreen says waterproof. If you play volleyball or engage in some other sport and sweat while exposed to the sun, also reapply the sunscreen when you're done.


Exposure to too much sun can give you sunburn and, long term, skin cancer. Using sunscreen correctly is a safe, effective, and reasonably inexpensive way to protect your skin from damage.

For the differences between sunscreen and sunblock read Sunscreen, Sunblock: What's the Difference?

Note: Amazon products chosen based on positive customer reviews and EWG (Environmental Working Group) recommendations.


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    • Billsnotes profile image

      Billsnotes 5 years ago

      Thanks for the comment. I think we all remember the peeling skin times of childhood!