Sunscreens often don’t get a lot of respect even among skincare enthusiasts, even though it’s considered to be the most effective beauty product by dermatologists. Unlike general skincare products, people often view sunscreen as something akin to toothpaste rather than as a cosmetic. It’s a chore and something that’s decidedly unsexy – and that can be a challenge.
Rule #1: Use the Sunscreen
The first and most important rule of sunscreens is decidedly non-technical and unfortunately seldom followed: Use your sunscreen regularly! According to a 2013 survey by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the statistics are dismal, with only 14% of men and 30% of women report using sunscreen daily, with 44% of men and 28% of women never using sunscreen.1
There’s a lot of fixation on the best sunscreen product – dermatologists often get asked which sunscreen they should buy – but at the end of the day, if you don’t use them regularly, there’s no point. It’s much more important that you buy a product that you will, in fact, use. To that end, we always recommend focusing on the elements that make you more likely to use sunscreens regularly.
- Purchase sunscreen products that are within your budget. You simply aren’t going to apply them regularly or adequately if you’re worried about the cost.
- Make sure that you like the feel and smell of the sunscreens. If you don’t like them, you are much less likely to apply them.
- Keep the sunscreen in a visible place with the rest of your skincare products that are used regularly. You want to do everything you can to make the use of sunscreens a part of your daily routine.
- If you find applying sunscreens to be a chore, consider purchasing products that contain sunscreens in them. Many moisturizers and creams today are formulated with sunscreens as a 2 for 1. These may not provide you with the best protection, but it is certainly better than no protection.
Rule #2: Apply Generously and Often
The second rule is to apply sunscreens generously. Sunscreen is applied and tested in the laboratory as 2mg/cm2 – and various studies have shown that in practice, people apply half of that amount or less. It’s also important to reapply them every 2 hours if you remain outside. Reapplying sunscreen can be annoying – especially if you have makeup on and don’t want to redo everything. Starting with a larger adequate amount of sunscreen will help with this, and you may want to consider products that contain SPF to help with this.
- Apply enough sunscreen. Studies have consistently shown that people apply far less than the amount that is recommended. In effect, people aren’t getting the protection that the SPF rating promises.
- Sunscreens degrade. Although modern sunscreens are more stable to degradation from sun exposure,2 there are good reasons to reapply sunscreen.
- Most people don’t apply sunscreens in adequate amounts. This has the effect of weakening the protection that the sunscreen provides.3 It also increases the need for reapplication.
- Many factors like sweat, water exposure, and even wind exposure or simply wiping off the sunscreen with the hands or shirts can remove sunscreen. All of these real-life factors are not measured in the SPF rating.
Rule #3: Remain Sun Smart
Sunscreens, as useful as they are, do not magically make you invulnerable to the sun. This false sense of security isn’t only a theoretical concern – various studies have shown that people, in fact, do stay out longer when they apply sunscreen.
- Sunscreens only protect the parts of the skin that they are applied to. Most people don’t apply sunscreen to all sun-exposed areas like the back of the ears, eyelids, or the scalp (if you’re bald).
- The best protection is to stay out of the sun (especially in the mid-afternoon). Long sleeves, hats, and UV protective clothing are also important.
- Remember that sunscreen is only part of the equation and not a license to bask in the sun indefinitely.
Rule #4: A is for Aging
The two spectra of UV light that are relevant in the context of skin are UVA and UVB. The easiest way to remember what UVA and UVB do, respectively, are:
A = Aging
B = Burning
There’s so much education about the sun’s dangers today, but it bears repeating since sunburns are particularly salient – we know when we get a sunburn from UVB exposure. Yet, UVA may be the silent killer.
- UVA is the longer spectrum of light and about 95% of the UV light that passes through the ozone layer. Unfortunately, clouds do not block out UVA as it does UVB, meaning that sun protection is still necessary on cloudy days.
- UVA is primarily responsible for aging symptoms – wrinkles, fine lines, sagging of the skin and increasing skin cancer risk.
- Happily, unlike the past, most sunscreens provide broad-spectrum protection (the keyword you’re looking for on the bottle) today, but you still need to check to ensure that you aren’t being hit by the aging rays without knowing it.
- In North America, broad-spectrum protection, or simply protection from UVA, is most often used. In Asia or Europe, PPD (persistent pigment darkening) or UVAPF (UVA protection factor) may be on the sunscreen packaging. This can be confusing if you are on vacation, but it’s definitely worth the trouble.
Rule #5: Treat Sunscreens like Makeup, not Bug Repellent
Compare makeup and bug repellent. Bug repellent is a tool that has a specific function that comes into play on rare occasions. Makeup/skincare, on the other hand, although technically a tool, is closer to a routine and a habit for many of us. We optimize, sometimes change it up, experiment, and have opinions over them. In short, we fuss over makeup in ways that we don’t over bug repellent. Might we be doing this wrong, though?
- The majority of sun damage is paid later in life in premature aging and increased risks of skin cancers, but the prevention needs to happen up front.
- While we tend to make routines out of items that pay off early (your next date or another workday), but we need to be making routines out of things that confer long-term rewards like sun protection and adopting healthy lifestyles.
- Work up a habit – like makeup by keeping sunscreen in visible places, such as next to your makeup products. It’s often said that it takes a month to make a habit of something.
3This is kind of obvious, but you might be surprised at just how much less protection you get when you don’t apply enough.
4The other UV spectra are completely absorbed by the atmosphere.