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Smart Sunscreen Strategies: Easy Tips for Everyday Protection

You’ve been hearing about how important sunscreen is for years. You’re rubbing in a lotion or gel on your skin, spraying sunscreen on your kids at the pool or carrying a sunscreen stick in your bag just in case. Maybe you do all of these things.

But are the ways you’re using sunscreen giving you the protection you need?

Sunscreen is an important shield against the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, which may cause skin damage, premature aging, sunburn and skin cancer. 

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and is largely preventable. UV radiation from the sun is a known carcinogen, so protecting your skin is extremely important,” said Jordan Abbott, MD, a dermatologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Tanning is your skin’s defense response to UV damage and indicates that skin cells have undergone harm. As DNA damage in your skin cells builds up, your skin cancer risk increases.” 

When you make using sunscreen part of your routine, you’re taking a smart step to keep your skin healthy. These tips can make sure you’re maximizing your protection against the sun’s harmful rays.

Choose the right sunscreen

“With so many options, choosing a sunscreen can be overwhelming. I always tell my patients that the best sunscreen is the one that they will actually use,” Dr. Abbott said. “It doesn’t matter how great a sunscreen is if it stays in your medicine cabinet and you are reluctant to apply it.” 

You want to look for a few things when you’re choosing sunscreen:

  • SPF: SPF stands for sun protection factor. The higher the SPF, the more protection you get. It’s a good idea to choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, most of the time.
  • Broad spectrum: The sun’s UV rays come in two types: UVA and UVB. UVA rays go deeper into your skin and may make premature aging and skin cancer more likely. UVB rays are more likely to burn your skin. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against both types. 
  • Water resistance: If you’re swimming, boating or sweating a lot, you’ll want a water-resistant sunscreen. They are designed to stick to your skin when they are exposed to water. 

The right way to apply sunscreen

A lot of people don’t apply sunscreen in ways that get the most protection. Here are a few tips:

Slather on the sunscreen

“For days when you plan to spend time outdoors, I recommend starting with a solid base application of a gel or cream sunscreen before you leave the house,” Dr. Abbott said. “Sprays are fine to use, but it’s more difficult to get even coverage, so I don’t recommend using them as your base layer.” 

You need to spread on plenty of sunscreen — a nickel-sized amount for your face and about an ounce, the size of a shot glass, for your body. “Apply sunscreen all over your skin in the areas not covered by clothing,” Dr. Abbott said. 

“A common reason people feel their sunscreen is not very effective is because they are not applying enough. If the bottle says SPF 50 and you are applying half of the recommended amount, you are not getting that degree of coverage.”

Reapply sunscreen

Every two hours and more often if you’re swimming or sweating. “Even though some sunscreens are ‘water resistant,’ no sunscreen is waterproof. So you need to reapply after being in the water for adequate coverage. Sprays can be a good way to reapply once you are outdoors and sweaty,” Dr. Abbott said.

Bring plenty of sunscreen if you’re taking your family to the beach or the pool for the day. You might need three to four eight-ounce bottles to cover four people for six hours. 

You may want to keep a travel-sized bottle of sunscreen in your bag in case you find yourself outside in the sun for longer than you expected.

Coat the trouble spots

A lot of people miss their ears, neck, hands, scalp, hairline and the tops of their feet, so make sure you’re applying sunscreen to all of your exposed skin. And don’t forget your lips! They are sensitive to the sun, so use a lip balm with SPF to protect them.

Make sunscreen part of every day

Even if you don’t plan to spend a lot of time in the sun, you’ll still probably get some sun exposure on your face, ears, neck, chest and backs of hands. Putting on sunscreen should be a habit, like brushing your teeth. 

Don’t judge your sunscreen needs by the weather. Sunscreen isn’t just for sunny days. UV rays can penetrate clouds and cause damage even on overcast days. Snow and water can reflect UV rays and increase your exposure.

After you wash your face in the morning, apply moisturizer first, then apply sunscreen to your cheeks, forehead, nose and chin. You might want to use a lightweight, nongreasy formula as a base for any makeup you’re wearing. You may also want to choose a moisturizer that has a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 built in.

You can also reapply sunscreen to your ears, neck, chest and hands throughout the day.

Sunscreen for special situations

If you’re active or traveling or you have sensitive skin, you might need sunscreen with some special features. 

  • Sports and outdoor workouts: If you know you’ll be sweating a lot, you want sunscreen that keeps up. Sport sunscreens are designed for high-performance activities. That way, you can focus on your fitness goals instead of sun exposure.
  • Sensitive skin: Look for fragrance-free sunscreens labeled “hypoallergenic” or “designed for sensitive skin.” Mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide might work better than chemical sunscreens. If you’re using a new sunscreen, apply it on a small patch of skin and watch to see if you react before using it all over your body.
  • When you’re traveling: Solid stick sunscreens are good options if you’re flying and can’t bring lotion or cream sunscreens through security. 

Keep an eye on your skin

Even if you use sunscreen without fail, you still want to check your skin for anything unusual. Look at all of your skin, even the areas that don’t get sun. Use a mirror or have your partner check places that are hard to see. If you see any new or changing moles or changes in your skin’s color, texture or appearance, see a health care provider.

The bottom line

Using sunscreen every day can help protect your skin from premature aging and skin cancer. Choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more is a good idea. Be sure to coat your skin thoroughly, hit all your exposed skin and reapply sunscreen after two hours – or sooner if you’ve been in the water or sweating.

A Banner Health provider can help you evaluate your sunscreen use and give you more tips for protecting your skin from the sun. 

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