Connecting to Health

A Health and Wellness Blog

Back to Blog Home

May 2, 2016

5 Top Sunscreen Mistakes to Avoid

by Amanda MacMillan

Good news: Warm temperatures, backyard barbecues and trips to the beach are probably all in your near future.

Bad news: All those wonderful things mean you’ll be exposing yourself to the sun – and, maybe, raising your risk of skin cancer. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and today, the first Monday in May, is Melanoma Monday. That means it’s a good time to make sure you’re taking steps to protect yourself from all kinds of skin cancer, including melanoma, which kills an estimated one person every hour in the United States.

It’s key to use sunscreen year-round to guard yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays, says Katy Burris, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine -- but it’s especially important when you’re spending more time outside and wearing less clothing. Unfortunately, she says, many people don’t get the full benefit of their sunscreen, thanks to some common mistakes. Here’s what Burris sees many of her patients doing wrong, and how to make it right.

The wrong way: You put it on and forget it.

To make it right: Reapply…and then do it again.

“The number-one mistake people make is that they think sunscreens are a one-and-done sort of thing,” says Burris. But sunscreen loses its potency quicker than you think. If you’re spending the day outdoors, reapply sunscreen to exposed skin every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating, make that every hour.

The wrong way: You ration out your sunscreen.

To make it right: Don’t be stingy.

Think you can make a bottle of sunscreen last through an entire week at the beach? Bad idea. “The average bottle of sunscreen should only last two to three days for a single person when applied correctly,” says Burris. The rule of thumb when you’re using a sunscreen lotion: To cover your whole body, use at least enough to fill a shot glass.

The wrong way: You’re using a product you don’t like.

To make it right: Find one you won’t skip.

Sunscreen comes in lots of forms -- spray, lotion, stick. Any kind will do the job so long as you use enough, Burris says. “Some people under-apply because their sunscreen feels or looks greasy. It’s important to find one you like.” (You can find non-greasy formulas specifically for your face, for example.) Whatever form you choose, make sure your pick is labeled “broad-spectrum” and has an SPF of at least 30.

The wrong way: You wait until you’re in the sun to put your sunscreen on.

To make it right: Slap it on early.

Don’t wait until you’re lying on your beach towel to put on your sunscreen; it takes time for your skin to absorb its protective ingredients so they can go to work. Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you’re exposed to the sun.

The wrong way: You think your dark skin will keep you safe.

To make it right: Always protect yourself.

Having naturally dark skin – or a tan -- doesn’t reduce your risk of developing skin damage from UV rays. Have you skipped sunscreen before without ending up burned? Even if your skin didn’t turn red, it may have suffered damage on a cellular level, raising your long-term risk of skin cancer. No matter what your complexion, it’s best to play it safe. Use sunscreen daily, check your skin regularly for physical changes and get an annual exam from your dermatologist.