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How to Apply Sunscreen for the Best Possible Protection

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Photo by Jordan Lutes/Getty Images

If there’s one non-negotiable in your skincare routine, it’s sunscreen—and for good reason.

“Sunscreen reduces your overall UV exposure and lowers your risk of skin cancer and sun damage,” says Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. While cleanser, serum, and moisturizer are also important skincare staples, sunscreen is particularly vital since it’s a matter of safety and prevention. Skin cancer is more common than you might think, with the American Academy of Dermatology sharing that one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetime.

The good news is that sunscreens have come a long way from the chalky, greasy versions of summers past. The latest formulas not only provide adequate UV protection when applied (and reapplied) properly, they can also feel nice on the skin, which can make it easier to stick with them on a daily basis. Here’s the right way to use sunscreen and give yourself the best possible protection against sun exposure.

About the Expert:

Hadley King, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a board certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue

Which SPF Number Do I Need?

The absolute minimum is SPF 15. “Regular daily use of SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40%, and lower your melanoma risk by 50%,” says Dr. King, who notes that she recommends sticking with SPF 30 or higher. 

“It also helps prevent premature aging caused by the sun, including wrinkles, sagging, and age spots.”

FYI: SPF is a measure of how much the product shields skin from ultraviolet-B rays, or UVB rays, a.k.a. the kind that can cause sunburns. Dr. King considers SPF 30 to be the sweet spot; more isn’t necessarily better. “If adequately applied, sunscreens with sky-high SPFs offer only slightly better protection from a sunburn than an SPF 30,” Dr. King explains. “The difference in UVB protection between SPF 100 and SPF 50 is marginal.” In other words, you won’t be doubling its power by doubling the SPF. Here’s a breakdown:

• SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays

• SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

• SPF 30 blocks 96.7% of UVB rays

Also worth keeping in mind: “UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer but the SPF only tells you about the product's ability to block UVB rays, not UVA rays,” she says. 

That’s why the best sunscreens will be labeled “broad-spectrum,” meaning it defends against both. For a hydrating option, try Innisfree Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36, which is a chemical sunscreen that contains a soothing boost from green tea and cica. 

Got oily skin? Consider Murad Oil & Pore Control Mattifier Broad Spectrum SPF 45 | PA++++, which controls shine and minimizes the appearance of pores.

How Much Sunscreen to Use

Chances are, you’re probably not wearing enough sunscreen. According to Dr. King, “most people only apply 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.” The standard guidelines recommend one ounce, which is enough to fill a shot glass, for exposed areas of the face and body—with a nickel-sized dollop just for the face.

Here’s When to Apply SPF in Your Routine

While the amount you apply matters more, when you apply sunscreen is trickier, as it all depends on the kind you’re using. “Theoretically, chemical sunscreens should be applied before occlusive ingredients,” says Dr. King.” (Think: any rich moisturizer.) Physical sunscreens (or mineral sunscreens) are best applied as the last step in your skincare routine, right before makeup.

You should wear sunscreen daily, too, whether or not you’re spending the day outside. "Much of the sun damage that accumulates in our skin is the result of daily, incidental sun exposure,” says Dr. King. “Studies have been done in Australia that tracked the skin of people who used sunscreen everyday regardless of the weather or their daily activities, and compared this to the skin of people who only used sunscreen on days that were particularly sunny and they felt they would be spending significant time outside.” Not surprisingly, the daily SPF wearers aged significantly better—just saying.

Where to Apply Your Sunscreen

...Everywhere? According to Dr. King, we should “apply it to any exposed skin.” She also warns against overlooking smaller areas that are easy to forget, like your scalp, ears, and neck. Also, your lips need sun protection, too, so consider a lip balm with SPF, like COOLA SUNCARE Mineral Liplux Organic Tinted Lip Balm Sunscreen SPF 30.

How Often You Need to Reapply Sunscreen

Even when you’re working with a water-resistant sunscreen, reapplication is key to ensure you’re staying protected. Start by reapplying every two hours and after swimming or sweating. 

“I also recommend wearing protective clothing, UV shielding sunglasses, and a broad brimmed hat whenever possible,” says Dr. King, adding that she also recommends avoiding peak hours (like mid-day) and seeking shade whenever, wherever possible.

Do I Need to Apply Sunscreen Before I Go Outside?

Um, absolutely! Of all the times when sunscreen is needed, when spending time outdoors, it should be a non-negotiable that you liberally apply. Even if it's cloudy, raining, or in the middle of winter, you still need sunscreen—the sun is always out and reflecting its rays. Of course, your chance of a sunburn when the UV index is at an all-time high and you’re spending time in direct sunlight is greater, but the threat of skin damage is always there no matter the weather or season. 

“I like to apply about two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin, which works out to be roughly two finger-lengths worth for my neck, face, and ears. For the body, I typically use a shot glass-sized amount – around 1 ounce – for full body protection for the average adult. To avoid a splotchy sunburn, ensure you are covering your face and body entirely, and rubbing the sunscreen into your skin to absorb,” says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. 

Common Areas People Forgot to Apply SPF

Like Dr. King mentioned, you should be applying sunscreen everywhere. Anywhere your skin is exposed, you need SPF protection. But there are definitely some areas we often miss and if you get a sunburn in these sensitive areas, the healing process is no fun. 

“The most common areas people forget to apply SPF are the tops of feet, ears, hands, and back of the neck!  I also recommend that men with bald spots ensure they are applying and reapplying SPF liberally there, as it’s one of the most common areas at risk for skin cancer. These places are extremely important to apply sunscreen, as the skin in these areas is thinner and more prone to sunburn,” says Dr. Engelman. 

If you’re worried about those extra sensitive areas, you can be sure to pack a hat with you, a thin long sleeve shirt to cover up your shoulders, or an extra towel to cover up with if you’re at the beach or pool. The backs of our knees are also a spot we often forget so when you’re laying out, make sure you have lathered SPF there!

Is Makeup With SPF Enough Protection?

You might be thinking, ‘my foundation has SPF in it, I’m good to go!’. But, not so fast. While makeup containing SPF is great for a base layer of protection, you still need to reapply. And if you’re planning on spending your day under direct sun when the UV index reaches high numbers, you’re going to need a lot more SPF for your first application then what a foundation or moisturizer can offer. 

“Makeup with SPF can offer some protection against the sun's harmful rays, but it may not be enough on its own for several reasons. First, the amount of SPF protection provided by makeup is typically lower than that of a standalone sunscreen. For example, a foundation with SPF 15 only provides half the protection of a sunscreen with SPF 30. Makeup is often not applied uniformly across the face, so some areas may receive more protection than others. I recommend an SPF no lower than 50 for both the face and body,” says Dr. Engelman. We love using a mineral brush on SPF like Brush on Block if you’re looking for an option that won’t disrupt your makeup. It’s SPF 50 and refillable. 

Sunscreen or Moisturizer First?

SPF should always be applied as the last step in your skincare routine

“Moisturizer can affect the way that SPF is absorbed into the skin, so in order to obtain the best results and protection, apply your SPF after your moisturizer. This will ensure that the sunscreen can penetrate the skin and provide the best possible protection against the sun's harmful rays,” adds Dr. Engelman. 

Do I Still Need SPF When I’m Indoors?

Unless you’re living in a cave with no windows, you need sunscreen every single day whether you’re going outside or not. Do you need to lather up as much as you would at the beach? No. And we bet your home isn’t a greenhouse. Applying your favorite SPF in the morning or makeup with SPF in it will be just fine. “My number one rule is to find an SPF that you know you’re going to reapply, something that fits your lifestyle! As far as how frequently you should be reapplying, I recommend every 2 hours,” noted Dr. Engelman. 

Throughout the day, especially if you sit near a sunny window while you work, reapply with an easy brush on mineral sunscreen

Want to try out more SPFs to find your favorite? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own beauty subscription. Already a member? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Olivia Cefalu
Olivia Cefalu
Olivia is a freelance beauty writer. With experience in influencer marketing at Tata Harper Skincare and editorial at Very Good Light, she loves covering Gen Z beauty, wellness, and nail trends. Read her work on Very Good Light and Well + Good.
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Article Last Updated June 7, 2023 12:00 AM