Sunscreen Dos and Don’ts

Beach towel, check. Bathing suit, check. Sunscreen, check. Having learned about the potential dangers of too much sun exposure, most of us are now pretty accustomed to toting sunscreen to the beach or pool — for ourselves and for our kids. There are a few things you might not have learned about sunscreen, though. Did you know you shouldn’t leave it out on that beach towel and that you should check the ingredients? 

It’s not complicated, but there are some straightforward dos and don’ts. Here’s what you need to know:

Do

• Choose a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. If the label says, “broad spectrum,” you’re covered.

• Apply sunscreen before you head out. For maximum benefit, apply about 15 to 30 minutes before flip-flopping out the door.

• Use the right amount. It takes about an ounce of sunscreen (the amount that would fill a shot glass) to cover a child or average-size adult. 

Closeup of a person in a green, blue, and purple skirt sitting on a rocky beach with a white bottle of sunscreen sitting beside them

• Take time to cover sensitive areas and areas you’re tempted to skip (the tops of ears and the tops of feet, for example). 

• Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours. Also reapply right after you get out of the water, even if the product says it’s waterproof. 

• Check ingredients. Some (like oxybenzone) are hormone-disruptors. The Environmental Working group (EWG) publishes a Sunscreen Guide that rates the toxicity and safety of sunscreens. From their 2020 report: “New sunscreen tests from the FDA show that with just a single application at the beach or pool, six commonly used chemical active ingredients were absorbed into the body and continued to be absorbed through the skin for days or longer. What is most alarming about these findings is that chemicals are being absorbed in significant amounts and have not been adequately tested for safety.” The only two sunscreen ingredients that have been deemed safe and effective are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

• Favor sunblocks. While you won’t find them labeled “sunblocks” v “sunscreen,” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (see above) remain on the surface of the skin rather than being absorbed by the body. They provide protection by reflecting radiation. In addition to being safer ingredients than those found in many sunscreens, they’re also more effective. 

• Check the expiration date. The FDA requires that sunscreen manufacturers include an expiration date on their labels unless the product has been tested to remain stable for at least three years. So, look for an expiration date, and replace the product if it’s expired. If there’s no date, don’t use the product beyond three years. (It’s a good idea to label your purchase date on the sunscreen when you buy it if it doesn’t have an expiration date.)

• Apply sunscreen when it’s not sunny — or when you’re traveling in a car. UVA rays can pass through clouds and glass and damage skin on even the most overcast days. 

• Consider “reef safe” sunscreen. Many sunscreens contain ingredients (notably but not exclusively oxybenzone and octinoxate) that harm aquatic life. While “reef safe” products have not been proven completely safe for the aquatic environment, they are friendlier. You might also consider wearing clothing with ultraviolet protection, or even a t-shirt, while at the beach. Then use “reef safe” sunscreen on only the exposed parts of your body.

Don’t

• Leave your sunscreen in the sun! Excessive heat will decrease the effectiveness of sunscreen. While outdoors, wrap your sunscreen in a towel and try to keep it in the shade. Another option is to put it in a container in a cooler. 

• Overdo the SPF. It’s tempting to use a sunscreen with the highest SPF you can find, but a higher SPF has a higher concentration of chemicals, does not last longer than products with a lower SPF, and provides only a tiny increase in protection. (An SPF of 30 blocks about 96 percent of the UVB rays, while an SPF of 75 still comes in under 99 percent.) The FDA recommends a cap of 60 SPF on sunscreens, and the EWG recommends avoiding products that claim an SPF higher than 50. The AAP recommends not going above an SPF of 30 for children. Something with an SPF of about 30 should work for everyone.  

a sneaker with an orange sunscreen bottle in it sits on sand next to a white sandal and light blue towel

• Rely on cosmetics with sunscreens unless they specify an SPF of 15 or higher. Even then, remember that you’ll need to reapply it every couple of hours.

• Use spray-on sunscreens. Sure, they’re easy to put on, especially when you’re wrestling a toddler in the sand. But they’re not recommended for two reasons. First, they don’t coat the skin properly. And second, they pose an inhalation risk. If you do use one, check the direction of the wind, and avoid spraying the face. 

• Put sunscreen on an infant. Newbies have brand new, delicate skin! Best to protect it by keeping your wee one out of the sun. When outdoors, dress her in lightweight clothing that keeps her covered, and tuck her under the stroller’s canopy, for example.

• Rely on “water-resistant” labels. No sunscreens are waterproof; they all wash off. If a product says it’s “water resistant,” it means that the SPF works for up to 40 minutes while you’re in the water. If it says it’s “very water resistant,” it’s supposed to maintain the SPF for 80 minutes. 

• Use a combo insect repellent/sunscreen. You need much more sunscreen than you need repellent. Use repellent sparingly and sunscreen liberally. 

Have any sunscreen tips to share (including strategies for getting your kids covered with it)?

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