Sunscreen 101: A Complete Guide to Avoiding Sunburns

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Key Takeaways

  • Sunscreen is an essential way to protect your skin from the sun and prevent skin cancer, but there are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to its application.
  • A high SPF number can increase your level of protection, though the most important thing is to buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen that you want to use daily.
  • Sunscreen should be applied daily, and it should be paired with other types of sun protection including hats, sunglasses, shirts, and shade.

Sunscreen is a vital component when it comes to preventing sun damage and skin cancer, but misconceptions abound when it comes to proper application. One of the most common myths is that you only need to wear sunscreen in the summer, but you should be wearing it year-round, actually.

To make sure your skin stays healthy and damage-free all summer and beyond, here are the most useful sunscreen tips and fun facts, according to dermatologists.

David Kim, MD

Sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer and is the best anti-aging skincare product, so it should be part of everyone’s daily skincare routine

— David Kim, MD

What SPF Should You Use?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. But many sunscreens on the market have a much higher SPF number.

SPF 30 has been shown to block 97% of UVB rays—which can cause skin burning—while SPF 50 blocks 98% of them, so there’s technically only a 1% difference between the two, according to David Kim, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Idriss Dermatology in New York.


We often hear about the two types of ultraviolet light: UVA and UVB. UVA exposure is associated with wrinkles and skin aging, while UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn. Both types can cause skin cancer.

But Beth Goldstein, MD, a skin cancer specialist and dermatologist who founded the Central Dermatology Center in North Carolina, said it doesn’t hurt to use sunscreen with a high SPF number.

Research shows that most people don’t even begin to apply enough sunscreen to replicate study settings, so Goldstein said wearing SPF 50 or higher is a good way to make up for that fact and help ensure you get the most protection possible.

“The higher SPF will often help with longer wavelength coverage of UVA which, while you do not burn from them, those rays are immunosuppressive and promote cancer and photoaging,” Goldstein told Verywell.

One of the most important things to look for when buying sunscreen, Goldstein said, is the term “broad spectrum.” This means it protects against UVB and UVA rays, both of which contribute to skin cancer risks.

It’s equally important to find a product you truly like to make sure you’ll be motivated enough for it to become a consistent part of your daily routine, Kim added. “The most important sunscreen is the sunscreen that you actually use,” he said.

Should You Use a Body Sunscreen on Your Face?

It doesn’t really matter if you want to use body sunscreen on your face or vice-versa, as the protection they provide is often the same, Kim said. The main difference is that body sunscreen is typically thicker and pastier, but some people are more selective about what they put on their face and prefer to use a product with a different texture.

“There are also products that are tinted for facial use that also help to block blue light from the sun, which can add to hyperpigmentation and worsen melasma,” Goldstein added. “Usually body-based sunscreens are not as elegant and have a greasier ‘slip,’ so you often spend a bit more to get a nicer experience versus any additional sun protection.”

Do You Really Have to Wait 15 Minutes After Applying Sunscreen?

If you’re using a mineral sunscreen, which sits on the surface of the skin and acts as a shield from the sun, you don’t have to worry so much about waiting between application and exposure.

But chemical sunscreens that sink into the skin—such as zinc or titanium—do need 15–20 minutes to be absorbed into the skin, Goldstein said, especially before swimming and sweating. Otherwise, the sunscreen can get rubbed off easily.

How Much Sunscreen Is Enough?

You should use about 0.04 of an ounce, 1/3 of a teaspoon, or a dollop the size of a nickel when applying sunscreen to the face, according to Kim, while about a shot glass-full should suffice for the body.

On a regular day, if you work mostly indoors, Kim said it’s a good idea to apply sunscreen either once or twice per day. But If you’re spending the day outside, you should be applying it every two hours. You might want to reapply more often if you’re swimming, sweating, or toweling off.

If you wear makeup, you should always apply your SPF in the morning before cosmetics. If you need to reapply later in the day when you already have makeup on, Kim said a powder or mist sunscreen should do the trick. And if your skin is feeling particularly greasy, he recommends using blotting papers to remove excess oil before reapplying.

Goldstein added that powder sunscreens don’t hold up as well in coverage testing, but they still make a good option for reapplication on the face. She said it’s also important to remember that wearing sunscreen alone isn’t enough.

“People should not just be using sunscreen to reduce risks of skin cancer, burning, and sun damage—I am pretty hardcore about this,” she said. “Use hats, sunglasses, shirts, shade, and more.”

Can You Skip Sunscreen If You’re Wearing SPF-Protective Clothing?

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing with a rating of 50 or more is considered excellent, and it actually provides more protection than going shirtless and using sunscreen, according to Goldstein.

But it’s important to remember that UPF clothing does wear out and lose its protectiveness with time. And if you have any underlying sun sensitivity from medications that make you sun-sensitive or underlying medical issues such as lupus, Goldstein said it’s a good idea to use both.

Can You Still Tan With Sunscreen?

Sunscreen never provides complete coverage, Kim said, and it easily gets washed or rubbed away over time so it’s still very possible to get a tan with sunscreen on.

But Goldstein said getting a tan isn’t something you should aim for. While burning is worse than tanning, both are damaging the DNA of the skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer, wrinkles, splotchy skin, and more.

“Tanning is a response to damage to the DNA of the skin. It is your body’s way of trying to protect you from damaging rays,” she said. “So while you often do not burn with adequate sunscreen protection, if you are tanning, then you are getting damage—no ifs, ands, or buts.”

Does Sunscreen Really Expire?

You should pay attention to the expiration date on your sunscreen label. Kim said an expired bottle will likely be less stable and therefore less effective, while Goldstein said your sunscreen shouldn’t even last long enough to expire if you’re using it frequently enough and in large enough quantities.

And you should wear sunscreen every day regardless of the season, Kim added. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, but this disease can be partially prevented with sunscreen.

“Sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer and is the best anti-aging skincare product, so it should be part of everyone’s daily skincare routine,” he said.

What This Means For You

To protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays and to prevent skin damage and skin cancer, it’s important to find a sunscreen you actually like and use it every day all throughout the year. For the most protection, use broad spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF number and pair it with other forms of sun protection.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs.

  2. Zafren K. Sunscreen for adventure travel: use sun protection factor 50 or higher. J Travel Med. 2020;27(6):taaa048. doi:10.1093/jtm/taaa048

  3. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin cancer facts & statistics.

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.