Sun Protection and Sunscreens

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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How should skin sunscreens be applied?

It's a good general rule to apply a sunscreen very liberally. Those who skimp won't receive full protection. Most people do not use enough sunscreen and do not apply frequently enough. The sunscreen should be applied about a half hour before going outside to allow time for the sunscreen to soak in and take effect. If you're not sure, it's better to over-apply than to apply too little. There is no damage or danger associated with using too much sunscreen.

Many women use foundation makeup that contains sunscreen. However, this should be used as an extra layer of protection rather than the only source of sunscreen, because the amount of makeup that is needed usually is far below the amount that would be needed for effective sun protection.

Applying sunscreen only on sunny days or when it is hot is a common mistake. While the sun may be stronger in summer, UV rays can penetrate clouds and fog and can cause damage even when the sun isn't bright.

Do water or perspiration wash off sunscreen?

Yes. Therefore, sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours when staying outdoors for a prolonged period and after swimming, bathing, perspiring heavily, or drying off with a towel or handkerchief. Water- and perspiration-resistant sunscreens are available. However, even their protection will not last indefinitely, and they should be reapplied frequently, as well.

Can sunscreens cause a skin reaction?

PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) was one of the original UVB-blocking products in sunscreens. Some people developed a skin reaction to this chemical, and it was also found to stain clothing. Over the years, PABA has been refined and modified into newer ingredients known as glycerol PABA, padimate A, and padimate O, all of which are UVB-blocking sunscreen ingredients. Other ingredients in sunscreens may also increase the risk of a skin reaction in certain people. Anyone can determine the suitability of a particular sunscreen without risk of serious harm by

  1. clothing his or her body fully except for a small patch of skin; and then
  2. applying the sunscreen to the skin patch and exposing it to sunlight.
  3. If a reaction occurs, the user should not use that product. He or she should try another product.

Should everyone use sunscreen protection?

As a general rule, babies 6 months of age or younger should not have sunscreen applied to their skin because their bodies may not be capable of tolerating the chemicals in sunscreens. Instead, they should be kept away from sun exposure.

Everyone over 6 months of age should use a sunscreen regularly unless they and their doctors decide it would be better to protect the skin in other ways. Even with sunscreen use, wearing protective clothing and eyewear to shield UV rays are recommended. Sunscreen alone should not be regarded as complete protection from all UV radiation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/12/2015
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