Seven Most Common Sunscreen Mistakes

sunscreenIt goes without saying that the weather is getting warmer, and the sun is out longer.  While I advocate protecting yourself against the sun at all times of the year, you should be especially diligent about applying sunscreen during the summer, as that is the time you are most likely to be outside for longer periods of time.

The good news is that more people of all skin types are applying sunscreen now than ever before.  I have always advocated this practice, but other sources are getting the message out there clearly as well (i.e. American Academy of Dermatology, SkinCancer.org, etc.).

Different people have their own motivations for lathering on the sunscreen.  Some may not want skin cancer in the long run.  Others find getting one sunburn to be enough motivation to stay protected.

However, with so many people using sunscreen now, there are still people who do not apply it properly, or have misconceptions about how sunscreen works.  Based on my own observations and research, here are the Top 7 mistakes people make when putting on sunscreen:

  1. Skimping. That is, only using a small amount of sunscreen before heading outdoors.  If you do not apply enough sunscreen, you are not getting the SPF on the label, and are therefore not getting the protection against the sun that you need.  Rest assured, there will not be a shortage of sunscreen anytime soon, so put a large amount in your hands and rub it all over.
  2. Only protecting skin at the beach. Daily sun exposure is a majority of our sun exposure over a lifetime, and does not just apply to just going to the beach. If you plan on going outdoors on a given day (which should be every day), use sunscreen every day on areas of the skin that will be exposed to the sun, especially your arms and face.
  3. Missing spots.  People frequently forget to apply sunscreen to their nose, lips, scalp near the hairline, & the tops of their feet and hands.  This goes back to the previous 2 mistakes: wherever skin can be exposed to the sun is where sunscreen needs to be applied.  It’s easy to forget these aforementioned areas, but getting sunburns in these places is a good reminder for starters.  Reading this article is an even better reminder.
  4. Assuming “water resistant” means that you do not have to reapply after swimming. “Waterproof” or “sweat proof” are no longer valid or accurate terms for any sunscreen.  There is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen.  Water resistant means that the sunscreen will stay on the skin for longer, but within an hour, the water will eventually wear it off.  If you plan to stay in the sun longer after swimming, reapply.  It’s that simple.
  5. Assuming all sunscreens are the same.  There is a huge difference between a sunscreen that is SPF 4 and SPF 30, and you should pay attention to those numbers.  The higher the number, the better protection against harmful UV rays.  Make sure your brand is labeled “broad-spectrum”and is at least SPF 30.
  6. Using sunscreens that have expired.  The expiration date (usually located on the bottom of the sunscreen bottle) is another number to which you should pay close attention.  While the expiration date does not mean the sunscreen is automatically useless the day after, its ingredients will become less effective over time.  So if your sunscreen bottle is a few days past its expiration date, use it up quickly and move on.  If its a few months or even years past, dispose of it and get another bottle.
  7. Thinking tanning is OK if you use sunscreen.  It’s better, but still not recommended.  While tanning out in the sun is far superior to tanning booths, tanning of any kind eventually leads to skin damage, premature aging, and increased risk of skin cancer.  Sunscreen can’t prevent any of these symptoms, which is part of the reason why it is now called “sunscreen” and not “sunblock”.

The best way to protect yourself against the sun is to basically do the opposite of the mistakes listed here in bold.  Also, it is best to remember that sunscreen does wear off over a short time period, and should therefore be applied and reapplied liberally.  Do that, and the sun will not damage you.

About Dr. John Burke

John Burke M.D. has practiced medicine for over 25 years, and is the founding partner of MidMaine Internal Medicine. He established Maine Laser Skin Care in 2004 after devoting years to learning the latest in laser and dermatologic technology. Dr. Burke has treated patients from all over the United States. He is one of Maine's busiest practitioners in laser treatments, and in the use of Botox for upper facial lines and excessive sweating.
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