Common Sunscreen Mistakes

As we gear up for summer’s outdoor activities, it is important to remember that regular use of sunscreen is one of the best ways to prevent skin cancer.  The FDA recently changed the way sunscreen can be labeled and described. Sunscreens can no longer be called “sunblocks” (as the term overstates their effectiveness) and cannot claim to provide instant sun protection or to last more than two hours without reapplication. The term “water resistant” may be used, but “waterproof” or “sweat proof” are no longer acceptable. Sunscreens may be labeled “broad spectrum” only if they protect equally against UVB—the main culprit of skin cancer—and UVA rays, which promote aging.  Board Certified Plastic Surgeon Brian S. Glatt, MD,FACS, shares some common mistakes people make and tips on how to avoid them.

MISTAKE: Applying sunscreen AFTER going outdoors. Sunscreen needs to be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to allow time for absorption. Follow manufacturers’ instructions for absorption time.

MISTAKE: Not applying enough sunscreen. Experts recommend that an adult use about oneounce of sunscreen for adequate coverage. Remember that all body parts  exposed to the sun need to be protected. Many people forget to apply sunscreen to the face, ears, neck and feet.

MISTAKE: Not reapplying after swimming or perspiring. Sunscreen that is not labeled “water resistant” will come off with water or perspiration. Even water-resistant sunscreen provides a limited interval of protection. To learn how often to reapply, check the label which must note a limit of 40 or 80 minutes before the sunscreen becomes ineffective.

MISTAKE: Not reapplying. Many people have the misconception that one application of sunscreen will provide all-day protection. Most products need to be reapplied at least every two hours and more frequently when swimming or sweating. Check the label for specific instructions.

MISTAKE: Using sunscreen only when it is sunny. Sunscreen needs to be used on both sunny and cloudy days. Harmful UV rays can damage skin even when it’s cloudy. All people are at risk of skin damage caused by the sun’s UV rays, so it is crucial to wear sunscreen regardless of skin tone or ethnicity.

MISTAKE: Using a sunscreen that only blocks UVB Rays. To ensure protection, use a sunscreen that contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which block both UVB and UVA rays.

MISTAKE: Using old sunscreen. Make sure the product has not expired. If it does not have an expiration date, write the date on the bottle and toss it after one year.

MISTAKE: Wearing sunscreen, but not protective clothing. Wearing protective clothing and accessories like hats, shirts, and sunglasses in addition to sunscreen make for doubly safe sun exposure. Many companies now sell clothing for adults and children that offer SPF 50+ protection.


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