The 6 Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes We’re All Making

Updated: Mar. 30, 2022

Kudos to those who use it, but according to an unusual study, chances are none of us is using sunscreen right.

Anyone who has ever had a sunburn knows people make mistakes when it comes to applying sunscreen. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology confirms it. Researchers set up free sunscreen dispensers at the Minnesota State Fair and then observed 17,000 attendees. Over 93 observation hours, a mere 2,187 people were seen actually using the free sunscreen. More women than men used it. And all could use a bit of sunscreen education, the researchers concluded. Ready to learn? Here are the key mistakes people make.

cloudy skiespixy_nook

Not wearing sunscreen on cloudy days

On cloudy days, the number of people observed in the study using sunscreen decreased dramatically, despite the UV index remaining at a dangerous levels. “UV index can still be high on a cloudy day,” reminds Gary Goldenberg, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. “In fact, the risk of a sunburn may be even higher since there is a misconception that one cannot get burned on a cloudy day. Furthermore, sun damage occurs on any day with sun exposure. That’s why I advise my patients to apply sunscreen every morning, 365 days per year,” says Dr. Goldenberg.

woman applying sunscreen to shoulderverona-studio/Shutterstock

Not applying sunscreen to all exposed areas

The study also found that only one-third of participants applied sunscreen to all exposed skin. “Most people apply sunscreen in haste and therefore miss many areas of skin,” says Estee Williams, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in Manhattan. “For many, sunscreen is an afterthought altogether, and we’re rushed when applying it. Or, we want to get the process over with. If we train ourselves to make sunscreen a priority and give it full attention, it will be easier to apply it correctly.”

Not using enough sunscreen

Some people just lightly cover themselves in lotion and that’s not enough for protection. The recommendation is to apply a shot-glass size portion of sunscreen to your entire exposed body surface area every two hours. Dr. Williams points out that sunscreen bottles are just too small. If you were to use the right amount, you would finish a bottle in just a few days. “Perhaps if companies were to make larger sizes, while keeping the price down, people would realize that they needed to use more,” she says.

Not reapplying often enough

It’s not enough to get all the exposed areas of your skin once, you have to reapply sunscreen every two hours or more frequently if you’re sweating or in the water, says Heather Hamilton, MD, a dermatologist in private practice at the Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.

Not adding extra protection

Because it’s hard to apply enough sunscreen all over your body and reapply it often enough, dermatologists suggest you take an extra step.”I also recommend sun-protective clothing,” says Dr. Hamilton. “You still need to apply and reapply sunscreen to the exposed areas, but at least a large surface area is covered with the sun-protective clothing.”

woman wearing sunhat outsideZeljko-Matic/Shutterstock

Not protecting the eyes

In the study, 38 percent of the sunscreen users weren’t wearing additional sun protection, such as a hat, sunglasses, or long-sleeved clothing. Sunglasses are often overlooked as an important way to guard against sun exposure. “It’s important to protect your eyes from sun’s harmful rays with sunglasses,” Dr. Goldenberg says. “Not only it is possible to develop melanoma in the back of the eye, other skin cancers can also occur. In fact, the lower eyelid is a common place for basal and squamous cell skin cancers.”

Dr. Hamilton also recommends that people stay out of the sun when possible especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “For example, if you are going to eat lunch at a cafe outside, choose a table with an umbrella instead of one without,” he suggests.

Next: The 12 worst places on your body to get a sunburn.