Proper Sunscreen Protocol

Skin protection is a year-round consideration, but we are particularly cautious about sun exposure during summer months when we spend countless hours outside. To help us keep our skin healthy all season long (and beyond), we asked Dr. Leslie Baumann of Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology in Miami, Florida, for advice on proper sunscreen protocol. Here are her recommendations:

Apply in advance. Chemical-based sunscreens should be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure to ensure that the filters have time to absorb. While technically it’s not necessary to apply physical sunscreens before sun exposure, I advise applying them to the body before putting on a bathing suit and getting dressed so you don’t miss areas close to your bathing suit (which is where a lot of sunburns occur).

Don’t skimp. Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to get the protection stated on the bottle, and are using the same bottle of sunscreen they started last summer. The general rule of thumb is that you should use a teaspoon of sunscreen for the face and a shot-glass sized amount for the entire body during each application. A family of four should use an entire bottle of sunscreen over the course of the day at the beach or pool.

Dab rather than rub. Dabbing when applying sunscreen creates a thicker layer on the skin that is more effective than a rubbed in layer. We’re inclined to rub it in to make it go away, but in so doing we’re actually reducing the level of protection.

Remember to reapply. Skincare companies are no longer allowed to use the term “waterproof;” now they can say a sunscreen is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, which means a sunscreen should maintain its effectiveness for that long when exposed to water. Most consumers don’t apply enough sunscreen (see above), so I believe this gives consumers a false sense of security. It’s essential to reapply sunscreen after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying, and at least every two hours when out of the water. I advise reapplying hourly when in the water.

Pick the right level of protection. An SPF of 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks approximately 97 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks an estimated 98 percent of UVB rays, so there’s a nominal difference between 30 and 50. I believe a higher SPF lends a false sense of security despite the fact that it really isn’t that much more effective. For optimal sun protection, the key is reapplying often, not using a higher SPF. However, I do recommend a higher SPF for activities that involve prolonged sun exposure, such as playing golf or boating. SPF 30 is generally more cosmetically elegant (i.e. more comfortable) for every day.

Seek out sunscreen with antioxidants. Broad spectrum sunscreen is essential for shielding the skin from UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays. SPF only indicates a sunscreen’s protection against UVB rays. I always recommend a sunscreen fortified with antioxidants, such as vitamin E, because sun exposure generates free radicals that damage the skin. I also advise my patients to use a topical vitamin C serum daily (and especially before sun exposure).

SPF in makeup is not a substitute. You absolutely, positively cannot depend on the SPF in your makeup to adequately protect your skin from the sun. You would need to apply so much more than usual to obtain the protection stated on the bottle or tube. Sunscreen should be applied after moisturizer and before makeup. This is the most practical approach, which will prevent your sunscreen from messing up your makeup. If you need to reapply sunscreen post-makeup application, there are great mineral-based powder sunscreens that you can dust on that won’t disturb your makeup.

Sun protection isn’t just for the outdoors. Sunscreen needs to be applied 365 days a year, rain or shine, and UVA rays can penetrate glass, so even if you’re working in an office all day, if you’re near a window you’re getting exposed to UVA rays. You’re also exposed to UVA and UVB rays just walking to and from the car. Over the years this exposure adds up and causes skin damage ranging from wrinkles and discoloration to skin cancer.

Know when to be extra-careful. Sunscreen is especially important when exfoliating, because those upper layers of dead skin cells provide some level of protection. Without those layers, you’re exposing fresh, new cells to damaging rays. In addition, although everyone should be using sunscreen daily regardless of any medications they may be taking, it’s especially important to use SPF when taking tetracycline. This particular antibiotic causes sun sensitivity (although many people think it’s all antibiotics) by absorbing UV light, then releasing it into the skin and causing cell death. Within a few days, an eczema-like rash can appear on areas exposed to sunlight. This does not happen to everyone who takes tetracycline and exposes their skin to the sun, but it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry! 

TSG Tip 165 from Dr. Leslie Baumann of Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology in Miami, Florida.