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Monday, June 17, 2024

How to wear sunscreen the right way: Your guide to SPF

Summers come and go, yet some people still may not know how to wear sunscreen correctly.

This could be concerning since these ultraviolet ray-shielding topicals can help prevent skin cancer, which is the “most commonly diagnosed cancer” in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The health agency reports that approximately five million Americans get treated for skin cancer each year.


“As the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases,” the FDA says. “[But,] SPF is not directly related to time of solar exposure but to amount of solar exposure.”

The amount of UV radiation that comes down from the sun varies throughout the day, so an hour of sun exposure at 9 a.m. could be equivalent to 15 minutes of sun exposure at 1 p.m, the FDA states on its webpage about SPF. 

How is this possible? The sun’s rays are at their strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The FDA also recommends applying sunscreen 15 minutes before going out and reapplying the product at least every two hours. Water-resistant sunscreens should be used if a person decides to go swimming or does an activity that’ll cause profuse sweating. Reapplication should be done on dry skin at least every two hours.

Man applying sunscreen to his skin

Sunscreen should be applied on skin that’ll be exposed to the sun. (iStock)

While the FDA is clear about how much sunscreen should be used for maximum protection, few people apparently wear their sunscreen at the recommended amount – if at all.

“Generally, there has to be a balance because what happens is that we do know that the average public, including ourselves, when we put on the sunscreen, we don’t put on that two-milligram-per-centimeter-square, which is the one that is used for testing purposes mandated by the FDA,” said Dr. Henry Lim of Henry Ford Health – a not-for-profit health care organization in Detroit.

But, again, since most people may not wear sunscreen at the recommended amount, a slightly higher SPF “would compensate for under-application while still providing relatively good protection,” according to Lim.

For people who are going to be exposed to the sun for a long period of time, Lim said they can choose a sunscreen that is at least SPF 50.

What about UVA and visible light?

While UVB is associated with skin burning, UVA is associated with skin aging. Both forms of UV contribute to skin cancer risks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So, we want to minimize that effect to prevent the blemishes,” he continued. “That could be darkened with sun exposure.”

How do I measure out sunscreen like a pro?

Applying two milligrams of sunscreen to each square centimeter of skin can be a tricky task. This is especially true for Americans who aren’t familiar with the metric unit of measurement in their daily lives.

Luckily, dermatologists have come up with an easier sunscreen measurement system called the “rule of nines” – and it uses teaspoons in place of milligrams.

Which are the best sunscreen types for the face vs. body?

Commercially manufactured sunscreens generally fall into the lotion, cream, gel, oil or spray categories. Each can be used on the body, but lotions, creams, oils and gels are better suited for the face because aerosol products can be irritating to the eyes, nose and lungs, experts warn.

Even still, spray sunscreens are popular among consumers and can be found in most stores.

“About 50% of the sunscreens that are now sold in the US are in spray form,” said Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.

“Your body wants something a little more substantial,” Rigel continued. “What’s really more important than the greasiness or thinness of it is what’s called substantivity, which is, how long does the sunscreen last before it breaks down and has to be applied. And typically, the heavier sunscreens tend to last a little longer.” 


However, there isn’t much of a difference between face and body sunscreens, Rigel said. The cosmetics industry makes more of a distinction than there really is.

“One-third of all skin cancers of the body occur on the nose. Everybody’s nose sticks out and catches the sun over a lifetime. So, therefore, I tend to recommend a little stronger amount on the face that’s chronically exposed.”

Other areas where skin cancer is commonly found include the lips, ears and scalp, and this usually happens “because they’re not normally protected,” Rigel said.

What about sunscreens for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions? 

People who have sensitive skin or a skin condition usually benefit from choosing a sunscreen that’s in harmony with their skin. Certain textures work better with certain skin types.


Cream sunscreens might be better for dry skin types while gel sunscreens might be better for oily. (iStock)

“If you have eczema or psoriasis, you probably wouldn’t want something that’s too drying,” Rigel said. “So, you might not want the gel, you might want the cream or the lotion or something that’s better.”

What ingredients should you look out for?

Sunscreens fall into two classes, according to Rigel: organic and inorganic.

“The organic sunscreens are the ones we typically think of – that oxybenzone and the octinoxate and all the other things that are in that in a traditional sunscreen,” he explained. “The advantage of those is they tend to be clear, and they are less obvious on the skin. They get absorbed in the upper layer of the skin, so they’re a bit more waterresistant when you’re in the pool.”

“The best sunscreens have a little of both in them,” he noted. “They give you the advantage of the reflection, and they also have water resistance.”

How to prevent sunscreen white cast? 

If you’re not a fan of sunscreen because it leaves a white film on your skin, you’re not alone. 

“This is a real issue, especially if you’re a darker-skinned individual,” Rigel said. “To use the zinc or titanium, you’re going to have like a whitish sheet on your face.”

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