7 Sunscreen Mistakes That Are Way Too Common

Make sure you’re not committing these 7 all-too-common sunscreen sins.

Jill Nystul • July 8, 2021

Jill Nystul • December 20, 2023

Jill Nystul • December 20, 2023

Jill Nystul • December 20, 2023

When it comes to protecting your skin from age spots, wrinkles, and cancer, sunscreen should be your first line of defense. While buying bottles of high quality sunscreen throughout the year isn’t exactly free, the cost pales in comparison to the price your skin will pay if you don’t protect it from sun damage.

In the past, I’ve shared all kinds of facts (and fiction) related to using sunscreen, as well as guidance about which ingredients to look for (and avoid) in full-coverage SPF. Today, I’ll be adding to my collection of sun protection tips by sharing 7 common mistakes that many people unknowingly make when it comes to sunscreen.

If you end up needing to tweak your sunscreen regimen in order to get the coverage and protection your skin needs, make those adjustments ASAP. Both your skin and your dermatologist will thank you!

7 Sunscreen Mistakes That Leave Your Skin Vulnerable

1. You Don’t Put Enough Of It On

If you’re applying enough sunscreen, you should be restocking your supply of SPF several times each summer. Considering that experts recommend applying a golf ball-sized amount of sunscreen over your entire body, a family should expect to go through an entire bottle of sunscreen over a long beach day.

If you apply lines of sunscreen along the length of both your pointer and middle fingers on one hand, that’s roughly the amount of sunscreen you should be applying to your face and neck. It’s likely more than you’re used to using!

I was shocked to learn that most people apply only 25 to 50 percent of the amount of sunscreen used during product testing. That means most people’s actual SPF coverage is only one-quarter to one-half of what’s printed on the label.

2. You Only Apply It When You’re Going Outside

The sun’s rays can reach your skin even through clouds and windows, which means you should apply SPF every single day of the year regardless of your plans for the day.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that more than half of the cases of melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma (two deadly types of skin cancer) occurred on the left side of the body, or the side that’s exposed to UV light when you’re driving. (In Australia, where cars drive on the opposite side of the road, skin cancer is more common on the right side of the body.)

3. You Assume That Higher SPF Protects You Longer

A sunscreen with a higher SPF rating does not equate to longer protection from the sun. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying a minimum of SPF 30 (which blocks 97 percent of UVB rays) and a maximum of SPF 50 (which blocks 98 percent of the sun’s UVB rays), and reapplying it every 2 hours, regardless of SPF level.

4. You Only Use Spray Sunscreen

To ensure you’re getting the full coverage you need from a spray sunscreen, experts recommended spraying it into your hand first and then applying it to your body. It’s the same method you’d use to apply a non-spray sunscreen, so the spray bottle isn’t really saving you any time.

On top of that, spraying sunscreen when it’s windy outside (which is common at the beach) is next to impossible. You might as well forget about getting proper coverage if you’re losing half your sunscreen to the breeze!

5. You Miss Your Ears, Scalp, And Lips

Full coverage means FULL coverage, so be sure to apply sunscreen to all those easily forgotten spots like ears, scalp, and lips. They’re all are just as susceptible to skin cancer as any other spot on your body.

Bonus Tip: A sunscreen stick (or even a tube of chapstick with SPF) makes it quick and easy to apply sunscreen to small spots.

6. You Apply It After You Get Dressed

It’s especially important to protect your décolletage (AKA your neck and upper chest) since this delicate area is often directly exposed to the sun. To make sure you’re fully covered, apply sunscreen to places like your neck, chest, arms, and forearms before you put your shirt on.

7. You Expect Your Summer Clothes To Block The Sun

If you hold fabric up to the light and your can see through it, the sun can go through it too. So while light summer fabrics may help keep you cool, they don’t provide much sun protection at all. (And they offer even less protection once they get wet!)

So when you know you’ll be out in the sun, it’s a good idea to apply sunscreen to all your skin, not just the spots not covered by your clothes. To make it easier, you may want to do your head-to-toe sunscreen routine right after you get out of the shower.