Putting on sunscreen can be the worst. It’s sticky, oily, and just one extra thing to think about when all you want to do is head to the beach.
Even after years of lathering up with sunscreen before heading out to the pool or the park, it can still be tricky to avoid the occasional burnt shoulders or full-body burn.
To figure out the best way to keep that from happening, we turned to Dr. Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Here are the most important things to keep in mind to keep your skin safe as things warm up.
Sure, the acronym itself stands for sunburn protection factor, but what does that actually mean?
'If you burn after 10 minutes of sun exposure, and you put on SPF 30, then that should give you 300 minutes of sun protection,' Piliang said. That is, assuming you're applying enough and reapplying every two hours.
There are a number of factors that go into how long it takes for your skin to burn, all of which change constantly. These include your skin tone, the time of day, what time of year it is, how close you are to the sun, and more.
So you might want to make some conservative estimates on how long your sunscreen will last and play it safe.
The difference between SPF 15, 30, and 50 isn't as linear as you might expect. SPF 15 blocks out 93% of UVB rays, while bumping up to 30 gives you 97% protection (not necessarily double). Going up to 50 boosts you up to 98% protection. And, once you get past that point, it's only going to give you incrementally better protection.
'Some people worry that we're giving people a false sense of security by using those really high numbers, and maybe the additional protection is not enough, or makes them stay out longer,' Piliang said.
In 2011, the FDA decided that sunscreens couldn't be called waterproof, since they will all inevitably wash off. Instead, sunscreens can be 'water resistant,' meaning they have a better shot at staying effective around water.
Once you get out and towel off, most of that sunscreen will be gone, so once you're dry (most sunscreens work best on dry skin), reapply, Piliang said.
When companies test for SPF, they're using about an ounce of sunscreen for your whole body. Piliang said to think of it like the amount in a shot glass, which can hold 1.5 ounces. That's more than most people actually use. So Piliang typically recommends a higher SPF, like 50.
'If you go a little thin with an SPF 50, it gives you a little more protection than if you go thin with an SPF 30,' she said.
The first few minutes of sunburn are met with some denial ('it's just because it's hot out') followed by a frantic search to figure out a way to soothe the pain. In these moments of desperation, it's sometimes suggested that sunscreen itself could help.
Sunscreen typically has a moisturizer as its base, which could help ease the burn. 'In a pinch, that might be OK if that's all you've got. But any moisturizer would do,' Piliang said.
Sometimes, the sunscreens can contain irritants that won't feel good against damaged skin. So if you can, pick another moisturizer that's fragrance-free and gentle. (Preferably aloe vera for cooling the burn.)
Cars typically don't have sunscreen protection built into their windows, which means that you're still likely to get burnt even if you think you're invincible behind the glass window. In studies of truck drivers, researchers have spotted that skin damage appears to be more frequent on the driver's side (closest to the window) than on the other.
Any skin that's exposed to the sun is at risk for damage. However, there's a reason the tip of your nose tends to get more red: The skin that's parallel to the sun's rays is at even higher risk of damage. Your nose, along with the tops of your feet and the top of your head are areas where you should be extra careful and be consistent about applying sunscreen every day, Piliang said.
Yes, the combination of sun rays coming down and bouncing back off the water onto your skin does intensify your sun exposure, Piliang said. The same goes for sand and snow, which is why you should be wearing sunscreen even in winter.
It depends on what kind of sunscreen you have: physical or chemical blockers. A physical blocker (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) goes into effect the minute you put it on, so there is no need to wait. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, do need some time to become active. So if you forget to put it on, it's still worth it to lather up once you're already in the sun, but maybe try to find some shade for at least the first 10 to 20 minutes.
Better yet, just put it on when you're getting geared up for the beach. That way, you're not going to miss any spots and it will be active once you finally make it outside.
Beyond making sure you're diligent about your sunscreen usage, Piliang suggests trying to find some shade, such as a beach umbrella, when you're spending the day in the sun. She also recommends sun-protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses.
Apart from shielding your eyes in bright light, wearing sunglasses can also protect your eyes from sun damage, which can increase your risk for cataracts. They will also protect the delicate skin that's around your eyes.
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