Many of my patients say they use sunscreen on a daily basis, but they’ll still come into the office with sunburns or tans. (Worth noting: Even though a tan might not hurt like a burn and “looks better,” tans are harmful to the skin, too.)
So, what gives?
If you’re using sunscreen and still burning it’s likely you’re either using the wrong products or not applying them correctly. Both scenarios are dangerous because you’re not properly protecting yourself from UV rays.
How do you get the most out of your sunscreen and protect your skin year-round? It might help to visualize the amount of sunscreen you need. One fluid ounce should be enough for your whole body, which translates to about one shot glass full of sunscreen. Even though you might stop at one coat of sunscreen, you definitely want to double up. Think of applying sunscreen like painting — you want to make sure you don’t miss any spots.
When you’re choosing a sunscreen, check for one that is broad spectrum (meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays), SPF 30 or greater, and water resistant—and make sure it isn’t expired, as sunscreen that’s past its expiration date is less effective. And even though it may seem unnecessary in the Pacific Northwest where we know our share of cloudy days, wearing sunscreen every day is vital. Oregon actually ranks fifth on the list of states with the highest melanoma rate in the country. Other cloudy states are high on the list, which could signal that people forget to slather on sunscreen on cloudy days, increasing their risk for skin cancer.
Before you head out of the house, make sure you’ve left enough time for your sunscreen to absorb — at least 15 minutes before you’re exposed to the sun. And while you may be tempted to reach for a two-in-one sunscreen and insect repellant, don’t. It’s more efficient to apply sunscreen first and then apply insect repellant with DEET. Then, reapply sunscreen every two hours.
If you can, try to avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can also calculate how much UV exposure you’re getting by the shadow trick: A shadow that is longer than you means UV exposure is low. But a shadow that is shorter than you means UV exposure is high.
With these tips, you should be better able to protect your skin from the sun’s rays while you’re spending time in the great Oregon outdoors.
(Dr. Charlotte Tsai is a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente Northwest.)