Public Health Corner: Is there a right and wrong way to use sunscreen?

When to apply? How much is enough? What SPF is best? Is once enough? Are all sunscreens the same? These are all questions we ask when it comes to sunscreen and application. There are so many kinds on the market it can be hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the basics.

Anyone that spends time outdoors should use a sunscreen. Even if you “tan easily” or are just gardening, it is important to be protected. Sunscreen use can prevent skin cancer from developing later in life and can be very effective if used properly. Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before you go outside if you plan to be outside for 30 minutes or more. Sunscreen does need to be reapplied even if the label states it is an “all day” product. Dermatologists recommend reapplying every 2 hours or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating. If you wait to apply sunscreen while outside and sweating, moisture can make sunscreen less effective. Women should apply sunscreen under makeup or even better yet, use a makeup that has sunscreen in it.

Be sure to apply a generous layer on all exposed areas including your ears and backs of hands as these area are often forgotten about. You should use a blob the size of a golf ball per application (which is actually about 2 ounces of sunscreen). This is especially important on heavy sun days at the beach or pool. Don’t forget that even on non-beach days when only your face and arms are exposed, you still need to use a teaspoon sized dollop of sunscreen for your face, neck and ears, and another teaspoon for each arm.

Don’t be fooled to think that a higher SPF (sun-protection factor) protects you longer or better. All sunscreen loses effectiveness over time and reapplying is key to the best protection for your skin. An SPF 100 doesn’t give you double the protection of an SPF 50–or last twice as long. In fact, when applied correctly, SPF 50 blocks about 98 percent of UV rays, and SPF 100 blocks only 1 percentage point more. Wearing sun protective clothing like long pants and sleeves are also effective in protection from the sun but can be difficult to wear in the heat of the summer. Sunglasses and hats are very effective in sun protection and much easier to use without worrying about the effects of the heat.

Sunscreen not only comes in lotion, there is also stick and spray options. Sticks are easy for under the eyes and the backs of the hands, while spray sunscreens are often easier to apply on children. As with lotion sunscreens, choose sticks and sprays that are broad-spectrum, water-resistant and have an SPF of 30 or higher. When using sticks, apply four passes back and forth on each area of skin to ensure ample protection, then rub the sunscreen in so there is an even layer of coverage.

When using sprays, hold the nozzle close to the skin and apply generously. A good rule of thumb is to spray until the skin glistens. Rub the spray in thoroughly to ensure there are no uncovered spots and coverage is even. Never spray sunscreen near your face or mouth and do not inhale it. Spray your hands first and then use them to apply sunscreen to your face. Do not use spray sunscreen on windy days because it’s harder to apply and there’s a greater chance of accidentally inhaling it. Never apply a spray sunscreen near heat or an open flame, or while smoking, and make sure it’s thoroughly rubbed in and dry before going near open flames.

With all this information about types of sunscreen and rules of use, hopefully you will be able to choose the best option for yourself and your family to help keep safe during a lifetime of sun exposure. More information can be found at www.mayoclinic.org and American Academy of Dermatology (www.add.org)

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