Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021

Sunscreen plays an important role in protecting you from UV rays and skin cancer. But according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), not everyone applies their sunscreen correctly. Applying incorrectly can make you vulnerable to dangerous UV rays and can cause damage to your skin. Below you’ll find other mistakes people make when it comes to sunscreen. 

1. Applying Only in Sunny Weather

This is one of the most common mistakes made when it comes to applying sunscreen. You might think that because the sun’s not out or it’s cloudy that you can’t get sunburnt. The AAD found that only 20 percent of Americans use sunscreen on cloudy days, even though 80 percent of UV rays can penetrate your skin on a cloudy day. The safest precaution is to apply sunscreen any time you’re outside. 

You should always have sunscreen on you. Sunscreen shouldn’t just be used for special occasions like: 

  • Going to the beach
  • Sitting near the pool
  • Going on a hike

A good habit to get into is applying facial and body moisturizers that have SPF in them. This will make sure you’re protected daily, even if you’re not thinking about your time outside. 

2. Using an Old Bottle of Sunscreen

Sunscreen can expire. By FDA regulation, sunscreens have to keep their original strength for three years. But if you don’t know how long the sunscreen has been sitting in your closet, it’s safest to throw it out. Most sunscreens should have an expiration date. If they don’t, you can write the purchase date on the bottle so you’re not using an expired lotion. 

When sunscreen expires the chemicals inside break down. This means they’re not as potent as they once were, and you could be putting on sunscreen that offers no protection at all. 

3. Only Using Spray Sunscreen

Spray sunscreens are easy to use and apply. But they don’t cover your skin evenly, which leads to burns in uncovered areas. When you spray on sunscreen, rub it in evenly afterward. If you’re going to use the spray sunscreen on your face, spray it in your hands first then apply. 

The FDA is researching the effects of accidentally inhaling spray sunscreens. They’re not sure whether it’s safe or not. So, it’s best to avoid spraying sunscreen near your or your family’s face. 

4. You Don’t Think You Need it

Maybe you hate the feeling of sunscreen, or you don’t think your skin tone needs it. That may be the case, but sunscreen is beneficial for everyone. Certain skin tones need more sunscreen than others. However, regardless of skin tone or ethnicity, you should wear sunscreen. Everyone faces the risk of skin damage and premature aging from their time in the sun. 

If you have sensitive skin, you’ll want a sunscreen that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients. You should also avoid fragrant sunscreens or oils. 

5. Not Reapplying Enough

If you’re swimming or outside and sweating a lot, you need to apply frequently. One mistake people make is thinking one application is enough. However, if you don’t have water- or sweat-resistant sunscreen, it won’t last. If you do have this sunscreen, you should apply it 20 minutes or more in advance while your skin is dry. 

A good rule of thumb is reapplying sunscreen every two hours. Especially if you’re in direct sunlight. However, you’ll still need to reapply frequently regardless of the weather or SPF level of your sunscreen. 

6. Not Using Enough Sunscreen

You might not be applying enough sunscreen. It’s recommended to apply one ounce of sunscreen. You also need to focus on your ankles, feet, and ears. These are the most commonly overlooked. Keep your head safe by wearing a hat, in addition to face sunscreen. 

You can almost never have enough sunscreen on. More is best, though you should be able to rub it in evenly. You don’t want excess sunscreen leftover on you. Using a lotion sunscreen tends to have the best coverage. This type of sunscreen can provide more protection than spray sunscreens. 

7. Using Less Than 30 SPF

If you’re not paying attention to the label, you’re not getting the right sunscreen for you. Anything less than 30 SPF is not going to be an effective protection for you. The AAD recommends a sunscreen that’s broad-spectrum, water-resistant, and has an SPF of 30 or more. 

Another common mistake is not knowing what SPF is. It’s the sunscreen's sun protection factor. The number indicates how much UVB light the sunscreen can filter out. No sunscreen offers 100 percent protection, but SPF 100 is pretty close. 

When applied the right way, sunscreen can greatly reduce your risk for skin cancer. It can also protect and delay your skin from aging from the sun. The FDA has updated sunscreen regulations and any sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, and broad-spectrum does a good job at protecting against sunburn. 

8. Only Using Sunscreen for Protection

The final mistake people make is only using sunscreen to protect them from the sun. While sunscreen is important, there are other precautions you should take: 

  • Seeking shade when available
  • Wearing sun-protective clothing like lightweight, long-sleeved shirts, and pants
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat
  • Wearing sunglasses with UV protection
  • Choosing clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology Association: “5 Common Sunscreen Mistakes - And How to Avoid Them,” “Research highlights common sunscreen mistakes.”

American Society for MOHS Surgery: “Common Sunscreen Mistakes: Are You Making Them?”

Edward-Elmhurst Health: “The biggest sunscreen mistakes you are making.”

Michigan Health: “Don’t Get Burned by These 8 Sunscreen Mistakes.”

Moffitt Cancer Center: “The Five Most Common Mistakes People Make When Applying Sunscreen.”

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