New Research Says You're Probably Putting On Sunscreen Wrong, So Here's How To Do It

by Julia Guerra

I have never, not once, in my entire 26 years of life, returned home from a day at the beach burn-free. You could say the sun and I, are just not friends. Those beautiful golden rays could shine down on me for a mere five minutes, and I guarantee the apples of my cheeks or the tops of my shoulders will turn rosy as a result. Of course, I always thought this was just a testament to my fair skin being overly sensitive to sunlight, but according to new research, if you don’t know how to properly apply sunscreen, it really doesn’t matter how pale you are: You’re going to burn regardless.

I learned early on in life that sunscreen wasn’t going to be one of those random skincare products added to the row of balms and serums on my bathroom shelf that I barely touch. Sunscreen was, is, and always will be a part of my everyday routine, no matter what season it is, but especially during the summertime when UV rays are brighter and beating down on you harder than ever. But here’s the catch (there’s always a catch, isn’t there?): Applying sunscreen at all is obviously better than skipping this step, but if you don’t know how to apply sunscreen the right way — like how much you should be using, when and how often to reapply, which SPF formula is best for your skin type, etc. — the odds of your skin coming out of the sun unscathed are slim.

New research shows a little sunscreen doesn’t actually go a long way, so it’s likely you’ve been applying it the wrong way all this time.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in every five Americans, “regardless of age, gender or race,” will develop skin cancer during their lifetime, and one of the only ways you can protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays is to diligently apply sunscreen daily. But the question isn’t whether you need sunscreen, because I’m pretty sure I’m not the first (or last) person to tell you that you do. The real question is this: What’s the right way to use sunscreen?

To figure out the best way to apply sunscreen and where people seem to be going wrong in their application, researchers from King’s College London recruited 16 “fair-skinned” participants and divided them into two groups of eight. From there, ScienceDaily reports, the first group was given high-SPF sunscreen that was applied in various levels of thickness, and these volunteers were exposed to simulated rays of sunshine just once. The second group received similar SPF protection, but these participants were exposed to the simulated rays over the course of five days to mimic a typical summer vacation under the sun.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results of the study showed that the thicker the sunscreen application, the better the skin was protected, as those who received thinner sunscreen applications had higher "DNA damage," per ScienceDaily, meaning these volunteers were more likely to see signs of sunburn. According to study lead Antony Young, a professor at King's College London, the team's findings prove that how sunscreen is applied, as well as the level of SPF in the formula, will both play significant roles in terms of how effective the product will be. He said in a statement,

Given that most people don't use sunscreens as tested by manufacturers, it's better for people to use a much higher SPF than they think is necessary. In theory, an SPF of 15 should be sufficient, but we know that in real-world situations, we need the additional protection offered by a higher SPF.

So what is the proper way to apply sunscreen, and how can you tell which formula will work best for your skin?

So the good news is, there's no such thing as over-applying sunscreen — in fact, when in doubt, dermatologists suggest the best move is to actually apply more than what you think might be necessary. Basically, you want to make sure you're applying enough to "cover all exposed skin," board-certified dermatologists and founders of DermPartners Medical and Cosmetic Spa, Shari Topper, M.D., and Jodi Fiedler, M.D., tell Elite Daily over email. For reference, they add, about one ounce of sunscreen — or enough to fill a shot glass — should cover the full body of an average adult.

As for how often you should be applying, Topper and Fiedler recommend lathering up every two hours — and if you're swimming, or feeling extra sweaty, go ahead and apply every 80 minutes. "The important thing to remember is that higher SPF numbers do not last longer," the dermatologists say. "Everyone should follow the same re-application rules regardless of SPF." So it really doesn't matter if you're applying SPF 15 or SPF 100; re-application is vital to staying protected.

You also want to keep in mind that the skin on your face is extremely sensitive and also needs to be protected. Of course, if the lotion or spray you're using is safe for facial use, then by all means lather up. However, investing in beauty products that already contain SPF is an excellent line of defense, as well. NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Hadley King tells Elite Daily that a great strategy here is to incorporate a moisturizer with an SPF, like the Aveeno Ultra Calming Daily Moisturizer with SPF 30, into your daily routine before applying any makeup. Additionally, she recommends investing in products like primer, tinted moisturizer, or foundations formulated with an SPF.

But SPF isn't an equation, Dr. King points out, so don't assume that using a moisturizer with SPF 15 under a foundation with SPF 20 is going to add up to SPF 35. "Your sun protection is only as strong as the highest SPF," she tells Elite Daily, "and this is at best." What's more, she adds, using multiple products can backfire, in that the SPF becomes diluted, so you want to be careful about overcompensating with too many products.

Bottom line: Lather up, and lather often, because even though skin and sun don't typically mix, sunscreen has your back — and legs, and arms, and feet. You get it.