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The Derm-Approved Way to Apply Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen correctly and consistently is key to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. In this video, learn how to apply sunscreen, according to dermatologists.

Lauren Smith, MAAlexandra Schwarz, MD
Written by Lauren Smith, MA | Reviewed by Alexandra Schwarz, MD
Updated on January 29, 2022

You already know sunscreen is important, and you recognize its crucial role in preventing everything from a painful sunburn to a dangerous case of skin cancer. (Here are more tips for preventing skin cancer.)

When you’re rushed, it might seem fine to smear a little sunscreen on your cheeks and shoulders, but that’s simply not good enough. “Even minor exposures can still lead to DNA damage in the cells of the epidermis,” says Keith LeBlanc, Jr., MD, dermatologist and founder of The Skin Surgery Centre in New Orleans. Over time, that damage adds up, which explains why more than 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancer cases are caused by excessive sun exposure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

For the best protection against skin cancer, follow these derm-approved tips for applying sunscreen.

  1. Stick with SPF 30 or higher. Remember a couple decades ago when everyone was buying SPF 8 and striving for bronze skin? Those days are long gone. Most dermatologists recommend nothing less than SPF 30 to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer.

  2. Have a collection, not just one bottle. Not every sunscreen is right for every part of the body. You might find that you like to use an oil-free stick on your face, a spray on your feet, a lotion on your arms, and so on. Plus, you might want a higher SPF for any time you’re getting direct sun exposure (like at the beach).

  3. Make it part of your AM routine. Instead of tucking sunscreen away in your beach tote bag, store your sunscreen collection right next to your mascara, deodorant, or whatever else you use every single morning. By applying sunscreen as part of your daily routine—regardless of the weather—you’ll form a habit and minimize the chances of forgetting to apply it, according to dermatologist Carolyn M. Kassabian, MD, of the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles. FYI: Oil-free sunscreens make a fantastic primer for makeup, so it’s a great way to start your beauty routine.

  4. Apply sunscreen everywhere. You might think you can get away with just your face, but that sun will hit you just about everywhere. (Check out more common sunscreen myths here.) Commonly forgotten spots include the ears, back of the neck, tops of the feet, and hands. Most people only use a quarter to a half of the recommended amount of sunscreen, according to Dr. LeBlanc, so apply liberally.

  5. Grab a shot glass. The American Academy of Dermatology says a typical adult needs about one ounce of sunscreen lotion to cover exposed skin: That’s enough to fill a shot glass. The exact amount will vary, but this gives you a general idea of how much sunscreen you should use (and—ahem—how quickly you should go through that bottle).

  6. Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes beforehand. It takes that long for your skin to absorb the UV-blocking chemicals. (Bonus: Since you already have the sunscreen on, you’ll be able to run straight to the water and start your beach day.)

  7. Reapply every two hours, regardless of SPF. If you’re swimming or sweating, you’ll want to reapply it even more often, such as every time you come out of the water and take refuge on your favorite towel.

Find sunscreen products you love that will make you eager to apply (and reapply) every day, and go out there and get some much-needed vitamin D.


How to apply sunscreen. Schaumburg, IL: American Academy of Dermatology. (Accessed on January 30, 2022 at  https://www.aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/learn-about-skin-cancer/prevent/how-to-apply-sunscreen.)

Skin cancer facts & statistics. New York, NY: Skin Cancer Foundation, 2017. (Accessed on January 30, 2022 at http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts.)

View All References (1)

Sunscreen buying guide: The ABCs of SPF. Yonkers, NY: Consumer Reports, 2017. (Accessed on January 30, 2022 at http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/sunscreens/buying-guide.)

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