5 Ways You Might Be Using Sunscreen Wrong

May 23, 2016
by Dana Poblete for Thrive Market
5 Ways You Might Be Using Sunscreen Wrong

It happened in Huntington Beach, Calif. College freshman Matt Brady, fresh off the plane from Colorado, hit the beach for some fun in the sun. Sunscreen: check. But by the end of the day, disaster struck.

“I transformed into a lobster on my front, back, top, bottom, ears, toes, everything,” he says. “My roommate had to apply aloe vera onto me for about six days straight, and I couldn’t sleep.”

Where did he go wrong? “At about 10 a.m., I put on SPF 30. And then never reapplied over the next six hours,” he admits. Big mistake.

Brady’s not alone—almost everyone has a bad sunburn story, and most of them can be traced back to a lack of sun protection. In 2012, 50 percent of young adults experienced a sunburn. But even worse: over two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Watch out for these five blunders you might be making when it comes to sunscreen.

1. Using sunscreen with potentially harmful chemicals

If you’ve heard rumblings about certain sunscreens being “bad” for you, it all comes down to a few questionable ingredients. Two in particular rate high on the Environmental Working Group’s toxicity scale: oxybenzone and octinoxate. According to research cited by EWG, both may produce chemically reactive molecules that can interfere with cell signaling, potentially leading to mutations that disrupt cells’ functions (like creating energy or multiplying for growth and tissue repair). Octinoxate could also disrupt the endocrine system and change the body at the cellular level—yikes.

If you’re concerned about these chemicals, Dr. Rosalyn George, an MD and dermatologist at the Wilmington Dermatology Center in N.C., recommends using a sunscreen that has solely zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Look for the word “sunblock” on the label—often, that means it’s zinc oxide– or titanium oxide–based. (Some such products will still labeled as “sunscreen,” though.)

2. Skipping sunscreen on cloudy days

When we don’t feel the direct heat of the sun, we may unwittingly subject our skin to sun damage. Just because it’s overcast doesn’t mean you’re safe from UV rays, which can still penetrate a thick veil of clouds. Protect your skin no matter what the forecast is—even in winter, but especially in the summer.

3. Forgetting to reapply

Slathering on sunscreen in the morning and calling it a day is just asking for trouble. “Reapply every two hours or after exposure to water or excessive sweating,” Dr. George says. Even “water-resistant” sunscreens warrant a touch-up after 40 to 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, according to George.

4. Reaching for a super high SPF

SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and it’s based on the amount of protection a sunscreen or sunblock offers against UV rays. But the SPF number on the bottle can be deceiving. The differences between SPF 30, 50, and 100 are marginal at best—SPF 30 already blocks out about 96 percent of UV rays, while SPF 50 only blocks 2 percent more. In other words, 30 is good enough.

George explains, “Basically, an SPF of 30 means that it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you didn’t wear any protection.” So, say you burn within 10 minutes without sunscreen. With SPF 30, you could extend that to 300 minutes, or five hours. But by that time, you should have already reapplied anyway, so using a higher SPF would be superfluous.

5. Using last summer’s bottle

All those half-empty tubes at the bottom of that beach tote you haven’t used in a year (or two, or three)—it’s time to toss ’em. The active ingredients in sunscreen can deteriorate over time, so pay attention to the expiration date. Dr. George says most sunscreens should still be effective for three years, but recommends replacing them yearly to be safe.

So, for maximum protection, Dr. George suggests looking for a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” and “water-resistant up to 80 minutes,” with SPF of 30. But even if you are vigilant about all of the above, you’re still not completely invincible to the sun’s aging effects or skin cancer risk. “Remember to seek shade when available and use protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses, too!” says Dr. George.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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One thought on “5 Ways You Might Be Using Sunscreen Wrong”

  • Science_Advocate
    Science_Advocate June 3, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    The EWG's evaluation of Oxybenzone (also known as Benzophenone-3) and Octinoxate is quite simply flawed and inaccurate. Benzophenone-3 (which also occurs naturally in some flowering plants) and Octinoxate has been safely used in countries such as the US, Canada, the EU, Japan, Australia, China, and Australia for excess of 20 years. There are no peer-reviewed and/or replicated research indicating that either of these chemicals cause cancer or any adverse health effect in humans. As a matter of fact, among the well-recognized institutions that present the safety of these ingredients include the American Academy of Dermatology, The Skin Cancer Foundation, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In addition, some of the studies cited by the EWG for Octinoxate, in particular, involved feeding the ingredient directly to lab rats and/or introducing it directly into cells. The high concentrations used in the studies are also questionable. The lesson - avoid ingesting and you will be fine.

    Secondly, "sunblock" has been banned for use by the FDA for more than 3 years. It'll be though for readers to search for that on a current label. It's improbable that the average person applies enough sunscreen to completely block UV rays hence it was considered misleading by the FDA.

    In conclusion, there are a variety of things to consider when choosing the right sunscreen for you. For instance, sensitive skin would benefit more from the use of mineral actives versus its non-mineral counterparts. The goal after all is to avoid irritation and maximize the benefits that come with sensible sun protection. However, there are more to sun creams than just the active sunscreen ingredients. The entire formulation must also be considered. This is story for another time.

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