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By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director

The good news: you’re putting sunscreen on yourself and your kids.

The bad news: you might be doing it all wrong.

When applied incorrectly, sunscreen provides far less protection than you need from harmful sun damage. Here are the seven most common mistakes people make when putting on sunscreen – and what you should do instead.

Mistake #1: Relying on sunscreen alone for sun protection

Sunscreen can help protect your skin from sun damage, but it should never be your first or only line of defense.

Do this instead: Along with applying sunscreen, cover your skin with protective clothing, hats and sunglasses, stay in the shade as much as possible and stay indoors during peak midday sun. Visit EWG’s Sun Safety Campaign for more tips. 

Mistake #2: Choosing a sunscreen with potentially toxic ingredients

Common sunscreen ingredients may do more harm than good. Oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen, can disrupt the hormone system. Retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A, may actually cause damage to skin exposed to the sun. Another ingredient to look out for: methylisothiazolinone (MI), a potent allergen, has been linked to painful rashes.

Do this instead: Search EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens for a product that fits your family’s needs, and choose a sunscreen with zinc or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient.

Mistake #3: Not applying enough

Chances are, you’re not applying enough sunscreen. Product testers apply a surprisingly thick coat to the skin to determine its SPF – the equivalent of a family using up a four-ounce bottle in just two hours outdoors. Applying less means you won’t get the protection advertised.

Do this instead: Slather it on! For adults, dermatologists recommend a minimum of one ounce to cover exposed skin, or more depending on your body size. Don’t forget hard-to-reach places like your ears and scalp (for kids who refuse to wear hats). Use a lip balm or lipstick with SPF as well.

Lotions will coat your skin in the most uniform way. Avoid aerosol sprays, which don’t coat skin evenly.

Mistake #4: Not reapplying

Think one coat lasts all day? Think again. Sunscreens absorb into the skin and lose effectiveness over time, especially in water.

Do this instead: Reapply at least every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, says the American Academy of Dermatology. And read the directions on your sunscreen’s label for more guidance. “Water resistant” sunscreens work for up to 40 minutes in water; “very water resistant” ones work up to 80.

Mistake #5: Too high SPF

In this case, more isn’t better. Research indicates that high SPF sunscreens (greater than 50+) mislead people into thinking they are more protected from sun damage than they really are, and offer a poor balance between UVA and UVB protection. That’s just part of the reason SPF values are capped at 50+ in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Read more about what’s wrong with high SPF.

Do this instead: Stick with sunscreens with SPF values no higher than 50. And remember: high SPF is no excuse to prolong your time in the sun.

Mistake #6: Applying sunscreen when you’re already outdoors

Sunscreen takes approximately 15 minutes to absorb into your skin. If you’re already exposed to sun when applying it, harmful rays are already hitting your skin.

Do this insteadGet a head start. Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you and your family will be exposed to sunlight. Allow additional time with kids to avoid transferring the sunscreen to the carseat or stroller.

Mistake #7: Using an old, separated or expired sunscreen

As sunscreens age, or repeatedly heat and cool (think: home cabinet to poolside, then back again), the formulation can separate or clump in its container. When this happens, the sunscreen won’t coat your skin in the thick or even way that’s necessary for proper skin protection.

Do this instead: Shake sunscreens before applying, discard products after their expiration date and store sunscreens at an even temperature whenever possible (for example, in your bag instead of a hot car). Sunscreens generally last about three years, the amount of time the Food and Drug Administration requires them to retain their original effectiveness. Toss any product if it clumps or if the oil separates from the lotion.


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