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Sunscreen spread on someone's back.

Why your sunscreen isn’t working

Do you wear sunscreen, but still get sunburned? You might be using it incorrectly.

“The biggest thing I see with patients is that they are not applying enough sunscreen and they aren’t reapplying it,” says David Harvey, M.D., a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Piedmont. “It doesn’t matter if you use SPF 100 when you don’t apply enough. To get a higher SPF, you need to cover the skin completely.”

Wearing sunscreen correctly is crucial whether you are headed to the pool or the office. Sitting by a sunny window, riding in the car and even walking outside to check the mail exposes you to the sun’s harmful UVB and UVA rays.

Here are Dr. Harvey’s tips to ensure your sunscreen has you covered, helping to prevent both skin cancer and premature photoaging.

  • Get out a shot glass. A shot glass can hold 1.5 ounces of liquid, which is how much sunscreen you need to cover your body.

  • Choose the right sunscreen. Whether you opt for a physical or chemical sunscreen, choose a formula that is broad spectrum and at least SPF 30.

  • Take your time. To get the best results, thoroughly massage the sunscreen into your skin.

  • Let it dry for 10 to 15 minutes. This ensures the sunscreen is most effective by the time you head outdoors.

  • Use a water-resistant formula if you know you’ll be sweating or swimming.

  • Reapply often. “With my patients who are golfers, I recommend applying sunscreen 15 minutes before they start playing, then again after nine holes,” he says. “For tennis players, I tell them to reapply after every two sets.”

  • Remember easy-to-miss spots. “I see many people who miss their back, sides of the face, neck and tops of the ears,” says Dr. Harvey. “I do a lot of skin cancer removals on the temples, upper cheeks, scalp, nose and the ears. These areas usually get the most sun exposure.”

  • Make SPF a part of your daily routine. “Men might choose an aftershave lotion or moisturizer with SPF 30,” suggests Dr. Harvey. “Women can get added sun protection from makeup that contains an SPF 30.”

  • Don’t rely only on sunscreen alone. Wear sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and UPF-rated clothing. Take breaks from the sun and seek shade or go inside when you are feeling flushed, tired or overheated.

  • Plan your day according to the sun. Consider scheduling outdoor activities when the sun’s rays are less intense, such as before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. “You don’t have to be a hermit, but it’s good to be aware of when the sun’s rays are the strongest,” says Dr. Harvey.

  • Don’t use sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months. Avoid exposing babies under 6 months of age to the sun. Instead, dress your baby in UPF-rated clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and keep him or her in the shade.

Now that you know the right way to apply sunscreen, check out Dr. Harvey’s tips for choosing a physical vs. a chemical sunscreen.

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