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8 sun protection mistakes you may be making

A father applying sunscreen on his daughter's face

It’s easy to think you’re doing everything right when it comes to sun protection. That is, until you get burned. Here’s how to keep your skin safe.

Think sun protection isn’t a big deal? Think about this: 1 in 5 Americans develop skin cancer in their lifetime.1

“Skin cancer is a big problem,” says Laurie Levine, MD. She’s a dermatologist at ProHealth Mineola Dermatology, part of Optum, in New York. “Cases have been going up every year.”

But that’s not the only skin problem that sun exposure can cause. Doctors need to remove suspect moles, she says. And that can leave scars. Plus, even young sun worshipers may get lines, dark spots and leathery skin.

Luckily, we can control the amount of sun exposure we get. “So it’s important to understand what to do,” says Dr. Levine. Here are the most common mistakes Dr. Levine sees, as well as some simple ways to correct them.

Mistake #1: You don’t need sunscreen because of your skin color

What gives your skin its unique color? A natural pigment called melanin. The more melanin you have, the darker your skin will be. But dark skin can still be damaged by the sun.2 You can get wrinkles, freckles and skin cancer. And people of color can get dark spots called melasma.

Whatever shade your skin is, you need to protect it.

Try this instead:

  • Use a sunscreen with 30 SPF or higher even if you have dark skin.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Mistake #2: You wear sunscreen only on sunny days

Forget the weather report. Use sunscreen daily, rain or shine, says Dr. Levine. Even when it’s cloudy, 80% of the sun’s rays can reach your skin.3 Plus, some medicines and some health conditions can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. 

Try this instead:

  • Use your sunscreen at the same time every day. That way, you’ll make a habit out of it.
  • The sun doesn’t take a winter break. Snow and ice can reflect the sun’s rays, increasing your sunburn risk. Use sunscreen all year long.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face.

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Mistake #3: You don’t put on sunscreen until you’re outside

“A lot of people wait until they’re sitting in the sun before applying sunscreen,” says Dr. Levine. “They don’t know that it takes time for it to start working.”

Try this instead:

  • Put on sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours. Do it sooner if you’ve been swimming or sweating.

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Mistake #4: You use sunscreen that’s left over from last year

Year-old sunscreen. That’s a sign that you may not be using enough of it. Most people use only half as much as they should.

“When people ask me if last year’s sunscreen is OK to use, I wonder why they even have any left over,” says Dr. Levine. “If you use as much as you should, an 8-ounce bottle should be gone in about a week.”

What if you have leftovers? Be sure to check the expiration date before you use it.

Try this instead:

  1. Measure about 2 tablespoons (a shot-glass worth).
  2. Rub in that amount every time.3

Mistake #5: You rely on the sunscreen in your makeup or moisturizer

The SPF in beauty products is better than nothing. But Dr. Levine says it’s only in the 15 to 20 SPF range. That’s probably not enough to protect you. Plus, you don’t put on as much makeup as you do sunscreen.

Try this instead:

  • Put on sunscreen first, then add makeup, especially if you’re using sunscreen that looks white or heavy.

Mistake #6: You don’t use broad-spectrum sunscreen

The sun’s UV rays cause the most harm to skin. There are two types: UVA and UVB rays. Make sure your sunscreen protects against both.

UVA rays have a longer wavelength and go deeper into your skin, causing a suntan. That’s an early sign of skin damage. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn.3 If you’ve had five or more sunburns, you double your risk of melanoma.4 That’s the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Try this instead:

  • Look for “broad-spectrum” sunscreen. It protects against both UVA and UVB rays.3
  • Your eyes can be damaged by the sun, too. Wear sunglasses with 99% or 100% protection against UV light. (We’ve got more ways to feel your best all summer.

Mistake #7: You choose an SPF that’s too low

An SPF of 30 doesn’t mean you can stay in the sun 30 times as long. Instead, it’s a way to compare one sunscreen to another. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 gives you more protection than one with an SPF of 15.5 But even the highest SPF won’t block all UVBs.

Try this instead:

  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • No matter which SPF you use, reapply it every two hours.

Mistake #8: You skip some important body parts

It’s important to use sunscreen on every bit of skin that might be exposed to the sun. That can be tough.

Try these tips:

  • Put on sunscreen before getting dressed. It’s easier and it’s better for your clothing. Plus, you’ll be protected if your straps slip or your T-shirt lets some rays through.
  • Use your head, says Dr. Levine. Your ears, scalp, nose and lips need protection, too.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat if you’ll be outside for more than 30 minutes. Baseball caps, says Dr. Levine, only shade your forehead.
  • For better coverage, try a non-aerosol sunscreen spray. Or use sunscreen sticks, especially for your face.

Your quick sunscreen checklist

The best kind of sunscreen? That’s easy, says Dr. Levine. “It’s the one you’ll actually use.” Pick one that’s comfortable, and make sure it’s:

  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • Water-resistant
  • Not expired (check the date on the bottle). If it’s starting to separate, toss it out.



  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health effects of UV radiation. Last reviewed January 4, 2022. Accessed June 16, 2022.
  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer in people of color. Last reviewed 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Accessed June 16, 2022.
  4. Skin Cancer Foundation. Skin cancer facts and statistics. Last reviewed May 2022. Accessed June 16, 2022.
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sun protection factor (SPF). Last reviewed July 14, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2022.

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