Are You Wearing Sunscreen the Right Way?


You probably know that you need to wear sunscreen. And you probably know the effects of not doing so: Too much exposure to UV rays can hasten signs of aging, worsen skin conditions and even lead to skin cancer — not to mention leave you with a painful burn. But when and how much sunscreen should you be applying? Does it matter what kind? And what do you do if, despite your best efforts, you do get a burn? Here, skin-care and cosmetic experts share their advice for protecting your body, from head to toe.

Sunscreens fall into one of two camps: chemical or mineral. Generally, chemical sunscreens protect the skin by absorbing UV rays, whereas mineral or physical formulas help deflect rays from the skin. Nonetheless, there aren’t huge differences in the way they work; mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can absorb a large amount of UV, as well, according to Dr. Michelle Wong, a cosmetic scientist based in Sydney, Australia.

“Neither [chemical nor mineral sunscreens] are inherently better for the skin,” says Dr. Elyse Love, a New York-based dermatologist, but chemical formulas may irritate sensitive skin. On the other hand, many mineral sunscreens can leave a white cast, especially on deeper skin tones, because of the natural color of their ingredients. “The best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually wear,” says Lily Njoroge, an aesthetician and the owner of the Skin Wins medical spa in Brooklyn. For the face, Love recommends EltaMD’s UV Clear SPF 46 and Skinbetter Science’s Sunbetter Sheer SPF 70 or the tinted versions of either product, which are less likely to be visible on the skin. For the body, she likes Supergoop’s Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50 and Unseen Sunscreen Body SPF 40, which have water- and sweat-resistant chemical formulas. Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Water Gel Lotion SPF 50 is a good drugstore option.

Whichever product you choose should be broad spectrum, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, the latter of which contributes to sunburn. The SPF — or Sun Protection Factor, a measure of how well a sunscreen guards against UV radiation — should be at least 30. But Love suggests that an SPF of 50 or higher might be best if your skin is particularly sensitive because of conditions such as rosacea or lupus, topical treatments like chemical exfoliants or retinoids, or laser or wax hair removal.

You should wear sunscreen on any exposed parts of your body year-round, regardless of your skin tone, and even on days that are cloudy or cold. Most experts recommend using at least a shot glass’s worth, or one ounce, on your body, especially if you’re wearing only a swimsuit or are minimally covered. Your face should get a nickel-size amount, as the last step in your skin-care routine. Love, though, considers the three finger rule easier to remember: Cover the length of three fingers with sunscreen and apply that to your face and neck.

Don’t forget often-neglected areas such as the ears, scalp, hands, bikini line, feet and especially lips, which Njoroge notes are “one of the more vulnerable parts of our face.” She recommends Sun Bum’s Lip Balm SPF 30, Aquaphor’s Lip Protectant + Sunscreen SPF 30 and, for those who like some gloss, Cay Skin’s Isle Lip Balm SPF 30.

Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and whenever your body has been in contact with water, “even if it’s only been 15 minutes” since your last application, says Love. Sun-protective clothing and swimwear can also be helpful for prolonged outdoor activities, she says: “They deserve a lot more praise because they fill in the gap for when sunscreen reapplication isn’t practical and there’s no guessing if you put on enough, like there is with sunscreen.” Look for a UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, of at least 30; the rating will likely be on the label of clothes that have been tested.

“Hair is a natural sun protectant for the scalp,” says Love, but hair itself can experience sun damage, which usually shows up as changes in color, including graying. She suggests wearing a hat to protect the hair, ears and scalp and changing the part in your hair on days with particularly high UV levels — most mobile weather apps include this measure, known as the UV index — or when you expect to get lots of sun exposure. You can also apply a lightweight sunscreen directly to the scalp; both Love and Njoroge recommend Sun Bum’s Scalp & Hair Mist SPF 30 and Coola’s Scalp & Hair Sunscreen Mist for easy application.

Burns aren’t always immediately apparent, so it’s important to look for subtler signs of damage when you’re outside in the sun. If your skin has a pink or red hue or is warm to the touch, Love advises that it’s time to find shade.

Once you’ve identified a burn, Njoroge says, it’s crucial to soothe and treat any inflammation. Severe burns might need medical attention but, for milder cases, “anything that can reduce the skin’s temperature,” she says, “will reduce discomfort and potentially reduce post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.” Here, her favorite, cooling post-sun routine:

  • Put Farmacy’s Honey Potion Plus, a hydrating mask with skin-soothing antioxidants, in the fridge for an hour and then apply it to your face for 10 to 15 minutes. (Aloe gel is a cost-friendly alternative.)

  • Shower in cool water and dry yourself by gently patting, rather than rubbing, your skin to avoid aggravating it further.

  • Apply a cool compress to irritated areas for up to 10 minutes.

  • Wear free-flowing clothes until your skin has healed.

“The skin is much more reactive when healing from a sunburn,” Love says, “so even previously well-tolerated products can trigger a reaction or delay healing.” Avoid using active ingredients such as vitamin C, retinols and exfoliating acids. Until a burn has subsided, she prefers gentle products with moisture-boosting benefits, such as La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Facial Cleanser and Avène’s Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream. She also recommends finishing your routine by covering the affected area with a thin layer of Vaseline to help seal in moisture. Simply put, Love says, your skin-care routine after a burn should “baby the skin.” But of course, prevention is always the best cure.

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