I Did Everything Right & Still Got Sunburned. What Am I Doing Wrong?

Mom and daughter at beach reapplying sunscreen

It’s a beautiful day and you’re headed for an afternoon of poolside fun. You’ve got your SPF 15 in tow and a brand new pair of shades. You get to the pool, slather on the sunscreen, and you’re good to go. Or so you thought, until you get home that evening and your skin is lobster red. What went wrong?

Unfortunately, it’s easier than you think for damaging UV rays to penetrate and lead to age spots, premature wrinkles, and worse—just a few bad sunburns can significantly increase your risk for skin cancer. Protecting your skin should be a top priority.

If you feel like you do everything right and still end up with sunburns, take a few minutes to review these facts and how-to’s about proper sun protection. See if you figure out what you’re doing wrong—and learn how to fix it!

Not all sunscreens are created equal. Here’s how to find a good one.

With a plethora of sunscreens at the drugstore or cosmetics counter, it can be difficult to distinguish the products that offer high-quality sun protection from those that only have a pretty bottle. Instead of choosing the product with the lowest price or best smell, choose one with all of these qualities:

  • Broad spectrum. Your skin needs protection from both UVA and UVB rays; a good quality, broad spectrum sunscreen will offer both and help prevent premature aging as well as sunburns.
  • Water resistant. Water resistant sunscreen is formulated to stay on your skin after you get wet—an obvious benefit for activities like swimming, tubing, or boating. However water resistant does not mean waterproof. After an hour or so, even a good water resistant sunscreen will need to be reapplied.
  • SPF 30 or higher. A product’s SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, refers to what percentage of the sun’s UVB rays (these are the rays that cause sunburn) a product can filter out. The higher the SPF, the greater the percentage: SPF 15 filters around 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 is shown to filter out about 97%.Why is 30 the magic number? Up to SPF 30, the increase in burn protection you get with a higher SPF is significant. However, as you move up the SPF scale after 30, the increase in UVB protection is proportionally smaller—SPF 50 sunscreen offers only 1% more burn protection. While you can’t go wrong with an ultra-high SPF, don’t make the mistake of believing that it will offer twice the protection of SPF 30.

Your best bet for finding a good sunscreen that provides the necessary protection? See a skincare professional, either a board certified plastic surgeon, dermatologist, or aesthetician under doctor supervision. Not only will you have access to clinically proven, safe sunscreens, but you’ll receive guidance to help you choose the best product for your needs and skin type.

Once you’ve got a good sunscreen, learn the right way to use it.

It’s not enough to simply put on sunscreen. For effective skin protection, it matters where, when, and how often you apply your SPF.

  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors. A common mistake people make is to wait until they’re already out in the sun before putting on sunscreen. However, it takes a little time for your skin to absorb sunscreen, so applying at the last minute opens up a window for sun damage.
  • Be sure you are completely covered. It’s easy to remember your nose, shoulders, belly and back, but skin cancer can (and often does) occur on less obvious areas. Be thorough, reaching below the line of your clothing, and don’t forget small or hard-to-reach places like your ear lobes, the space between your bikini top and armpits, and the part in your hair!
  • Make sure you use enough, at least 1 ounce for your whole body. Another common mistake is not using enough sunscreen, but don’t skimp here. A too-thin layer of sunscreen will leave your skin vulnerable; apply enough to easily coat your skin, and rub it in thoroughly. There are a number of high-quality sunscreens available that won’t leave a heavy, greasy feeling even when you use an adequate amount.
  • Reapply every 1 to 2 hours, even if you use a high SPF or water resistant sunscreen. Think because you generously slathered water resistant SPF 50 sunscreen from head to toe that you’re covered for a whole day? Think again. Higher SPF sunscreens don’t last any longer than their lower SPF counterparts, and as we mentioned above, a higher SPF doesn’t mean protection doubles; SPF 50 sunscreen is only 1% more protective than SPF 30 sunscreen.

Even sweat or water resistant sunscreens wear off after time. So set your phone to remind you to reapply sunscreen at regular intervals, keeping in mind that water and sweat will necessitate more frequent reapplication. Out on an overcast day? This still applies. UV rays go right through the clouds.

Know what can alter the effectiveness of sunscreen, and take necessary precautions.

Even when you apply sunscreen properly, certain situations can affect how easily your skin burns. Be extra-conscious of your sunscreen application and wear additional protective clothing in the following situations:

  • You are taking certain medications. Common NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naproxen, as well as many other common medications, can increase your skin’s sun sensitivity. If you are taking any OTC or prescription drugs, check with your pharmacist or doctor to see if you need to adjust your skincare routine.
  • You are outside between 10 AM and 4 PM. The sun’s rays are most intense during these hours. Cover up well during mid-day, or try to reserve outdoor adventures for early morning or evening (but still wear your sunscreen).
  • You want to shield yourself from bug bites. There are products on the market that combine sunscreen and insect repellant, but you may be better off using two separate products. The common bug repellants DEET can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen, and sunscreen can accelerate skin absorption of DEET, which could potentially be toxic. If you need protection from sun and bugs, apply the sunscreen first, then the bug repellant. Follow the manufacturer’s or your doctor’s instructions.

Did you learn something new about using sunscreen? If so, we hope you will take the time to incorporate additional good habits into your skincare routine.

If you live in northern Virginia, Maryland, or the DC area and you’d like more information about preventing skin cancer or age-related skin damage, please call us! Our experienced skin care professionals are well-versed in proven anti-aging treatments and medical grade skincare products, offer free skincare consultations, and will be happy to help you plan for your skincare needs.

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