10 Common Mistakes When Applying Sunscreen

Summer is in full swing. Finding a safe and effective sunscreen for you and your family is one component of your sun safety toolbox. And right in time for the Fourth of July holiday, EWG just updated its 2020 Guide to Sunscreens with 119 new SPF products.

It’s important to read product instructions. When sunscreen is applied incorrectly, it provides far less protection from harmful ultraviolet rays and leaves skin exposed to sun damage.

Here are 10 of the most common mistakes people make when applying sunscreen:

Not reading the ingredient label

Some sunscreen ingredients have been linked to health harms and should be avoided.

EWG recommends a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide because these active ingredients have fewer health concerns, and these products generally offer good sun protection. Zinc oxide especially provides good broad spectrum protection, protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and stability in the sun.

Some commonly used sunscreen ingredients can do more harm than good. For example, oxybenzone, a sunscreen chemical used in 40 percent of the non-mineral products in the 2020 Sunscreens Guide, is easily absorbed through the skin and is a known skin sensitizer and hormone disruptor, according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration. Another study found that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone levels in their bodies had significantly lower total testosterone levels.

Not only is oxybenzone harmful to human health but it also has negative aquatic impacts and has been shown to cause coral bleaching and coral death.

On sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

EWG’s sunscreen label decoder will help you find out what labels really mean.

Not applying enough sunscreen

Most people don’t use enough sunscreen. To protect your body fully, you should use about an ounce of lotion – enough to fill a shot glass. Product testers apply a thick coat of sunscreen to their skin to determine its SPF – the equivalent of a family of four using up a four-ounce bottle in just two hours. Make sure to slather it on!

Lotions will coat your skin in the most uniform way. Avoid aerosol sprays. They don’t coat skin evenly and can pose inhalation risks.

Remember to apply lotion to your brows, ears and scalp and the tops of your feet. And make sure to use a lip balm with SPF as well.

Forgetting to reapply sunscreen every two hours

Think one coat of sunscreen lasts all day? Think again.

Sunscreens lose effectiveness over time. And high SPF in the product you use is no excuse to prolong your time in the sun. Such products can give people a false sense of security so they think they are completely protected from sunburn and long-term skin damage, and can stay out in the sun longer without reapplying. EWG recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50+.

So, regardless of your product’s SPF rating, make sure to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.

Applying sunscreen outdoors

Get a head start – apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you venture outside. If you’re already exposed to the sun while applying sunscreen, harmful rays are already hitting your skin. On some days, even five minutes outside in the bright sunlight without sunscreen can damage skin.

You’ll also be less likely to miss a spot if you take the time to apply sunscreen at home. And allow some additional time with kids, who tend to squirm as you apply the SPF product.

Wearing sunscreen only at the beach or pool

You’re exposed to harmful UV radiation year-round.

Up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can penetrate through thick clouds. It's not unheard of to get a sunburn on an overcast day.

In winter months, the sun’s skin-damaging ultraviolet rays reflect off snow and ice, increasing your exposure. This is especially true on ski vacations, with greater UV exposure the higher the altitude.

And remember, UV rays can pass through some glass panes while you drive or work by a window. Check out more sunscreen myths here.

Using an old, separated or expired sunscreen

As sunscreens age, or repeatedly heat and cool (think: home cabinet to poolside, then back again), the formulation can separate or clump in its container. When this happens, the sunscreen won’t coat your skin in the thick or even way that’s necessary for proper skin protection.

Shake sunscreens before applying and store them at an even temperature whenever possible. Toss any product if it clumps or if the oil separates from the lotion.

Sunscreens are generally formulated to last about three years. However, it’s important to check expiration dates and examine the product’s texture before use. Discard products after their expiration date because they may no longer provide proper protection.

Neglecting to wear sunscreen because of your darker skin tone

Regardless of your ethnicity or complexion, everyone needs to use sunscreen. No one is immune from the sun’s harmful UV rays. And though melanin increases in response to sun exposure, that tan is a sign of skin damage.

Although dark skin tones naturally produce more melanin to protect skin, it’s not enough to prevent skin cancer, wrinkling and photo-aging.

Using a product that combines sunscreen and bug repellent

Avoid products that combine insect repellent with sunscreen.

Bugs are typically not a problem during the hours when UV radiation peaks. And, more importantly, if you reapply sunscreen every two hours, as advised, you will be overexposed to the active ingredients in the repellent.

Overlooking SPF products formulated for babies

Many baby products are formulated without fragrance and other sensitizing or allergenic ingredients. These products also work well to help protect adults with sensitive skin. This year, EWG found 16 best-scoring sunscreen products for kids.

For babies and children, sun protection is particularly important, since getting severe sunburns as a child can increase a person’s lifetime chances of developing serious forms of skin cancer. For babies under 6 months, who are not yet protected by melanin, it’s best to keep them out of the sun and to avoid exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when ultraviolet rays are most intense.

Relying on sunscreen alone

Although sunscreen can help protect your skin from sun damage, it should never be your only line of defense.

Proper sun protection includes wearing protective clothing, like a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection. Find or make shade as much as possible, and stay indoors during peak midday sun.

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