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How to apply sunscreen

How you apply your sunscreen has a major impact on the quality of the sun protection you get. But before discussing the proper application, let us put the usage of sunscreens in some perspective.

First, sunscreens are less reliable in practice than other UV-protection measures, such as avoidance of exposure at peak sun hours, protective clothing and so forth. Therefore, sunscreens should be an element of a comprehensive approach, not a sun damage panacea. (See our article on the key sun protection measures.) Second, it is important to choose a good, broadly protective sunscreen that fits your skin and lifestyle. (See our article on choosing a sunscreen.)

That said, how you apply your sunscreen has a major impact on its effectiveness. The key points of sunscreen application are discussed below.

    Apply liberally 15 - 30 min before expected sun exposure. Sunscreen should be applied in sufficient amounts. Most people need at least 1 ounce (about 30 ml) of sunscreen to cover their body. Do not forget to generously cover the face and neck, even if you wear a hat. If you wish a differently textured formula for the face, find a good sunscreen specially formulated for facial skin. If your sunscreen includes any chemical sun blocking agents (and most do), give it 15 - 30 min to get absorbed into the skin before going out in the sun. Purely physical sunscreen (e.g. zinc oxide) can be applied just before exposure. Also, use lip balm or lipstick with sunscreen on your lips.

  • Make sure that easy to forget areas are covered too. Don't forget to cover often-neglected parts like fingers, toes, nose, and ears (including top of and behind ear lobe). Use lip balm or lipstick with sunscreen on your lips. Use UVA+UVB protective sunglasses but cover the areas around the eye with sunscreen nonetheless. If you have thinning hair, try sun-blocking products designed for scalp protection.
  • Reapply regularly, more often after water exposure. Most experts recommend reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours, more often if swimming or sweating.

    Water resistant sunscreens are available for active individuals or those involved in water sports. It's important to check the label to ensure they say "water-resistant" or "very water-resistant." According to FDA guidelines, Water-Resistant sunscreen maintains the SPF level after 40 minutes of water immersion. Very Water-Resistant sunscreen maintains the SPF level after 80 minutes of water immersion.

    There is an ongoing controversy as to what reapplication frequency is optimal. Experts usually recommend reapplication every two hours. However, some studies indicate that reapplication every 15-30 minutes after the sun exposure begins is required for optimal protection. Further reapplication is recommended immediately after sweating, swimming, rubbing, etc.

    Some expert argue that not reapplying sunscreen frequently enough may sometimes lead to almost as much damage as using no sunscreen whatsoever because degradation products of certain sun blocking ingredients promote the formation of harmful free radicals. This is more likely to be an issue for the sunscreens whose ingredients are known to be unstable under UV light. In any case, do not rely on sunscreen alone for sun protection and when using sunscreen reapply frequently and diligently.

  • Read the label carefully and follow instructions. Sunscreens may vary in many ways, including optimal ways to apply them. Make sure you read the label carefully and follow manufacturer's instructions.
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