Toddler on Sandy Beach

Uh-oh...Most People Apply Sunscreen Wrong. Are You?

Published: 10/07/2021

Does anyone out there love putting on sunscreen? We’re guessing not. While it’s not so terrible when it’s a part of your beauty routine and combined with your daily moisturizer, when it comes to swimsuit time and there’s all that extra real estate to cover, it’s a rather unpleasant chore. And don’t even get us started on the task of applying sunscreen to kids. It’s a feat of patience and endurance and limb-wrangling worthy of being an Olympic sport.

Regardless, it’s absolutely necessary. The sun’s UV rays are not kind to our delicate dermis. You know the spiel. But, did you know the average person uses less than half the amount of sunscreen they should be? Less. Than. Half! On top of that, most people miss critical spots on their bodies (that also happen to be the spots where most skin cancer begins). 

Even if you're using the best sunscreen, poor application means people likely reap less than half of their sunscreen’s UV-protecting benefits. And while you might avoid a dreaded sunburn (caused by UVB rays), UVA rays are still penetrating deep into your skin causing all sorts of damage.

As an FDA-regulated product, sunscreens must pass certain tests to ensure safety and efficacy, but how you use it makes a world of difference in how well you’re protecting yourself and your family from sunburn, skin cancer, early skin aging, and other risks from UV ray exposure. 

If you’re going through the motions of applying sunscreen, make sure you’re doing it right. 


Here are 6 simple steps for properly applying sunscreen.


#1 Check the sunscreen's expiration date.

The FDA requires all sunscreens to be marked with an expiration date – unless the product has been proven to maintain its protective factor for at least three years. If yours has expired, toss the old bottle and buy some new sunscreen. Also, if the bottle has been kept in high-heat environments (like the trunk of your car), it can go bad sooner than what’s printed on the package. If you notice any obvious changes in the sunscreen, like a shift in color or smell, or a strange consistency, play it safe and buy a new bottle. 

#2 Check the clock.

It might be stating the obvious, but sunscreen should be applied BEFORE you go outside. The active ingredients in sunscreen take time to settle into your skin and become fully protective. This is especially important with water-resistant sunscreens – if you haven’t given it enough time and you jump in the pool, you’re instantly washing away some of the protection and leaving your skin vulnerable.

Getting a jump on application is also key with kids. Wee ones are naturally impatient. Waiting until you’re at the beach with the ocean water calling their name is just begging for disaster as every second of waiting turns into hours in their minds. Instead, apply sunscreen before leaving the house or in the parking lot. (Note: If you're throwing clothes on the kids right after applying the sunscreen or the car-ride is going to be long or they're sweaty and wiggly in their car seat, you might want to do a second, quick rub down when you get to your destination.) Refer to the sunscreen packaging for specific instructions regarding how far in advance you should apply the product.

#3 Slather that sunscreen on thick.

For adults, use a tablespoon of sunscreen on your face, and about 1-2 ounces for your body. Remember that fact from above: most people only use half the amount they should. Now is not the time to skimp. Less is not more in this moment. More is more. 

  • To apply sunscreen lotion, squeeze a generous blob into your palm. Dot various areas of your body with smaller blobs taken from the big blob. Spread it all over and if it's a mineral sunscreen, don't rub it in too well or it won't fully protect your skin. Think of it like a t-shirt. If you stretch it too far, you can start to see through the fabric. If you "stretch" your mineral sunscreen too far, the UV rays will find ways to get through to your skin.
  • To apply sunscreen spray, hold the bottle upright and move the bottle back and forth across your skin applying an even, generous coating. Stay out of the wind so it doesn’t blow the sunscreen away before it contacts your skin. Spray sunscreen into your hand in order to apply it to the face and neck area. Avoid inhaling spray sunscreen.

#4 Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin (and maybe even some that's not).

Maybe it's another obvious point to make, but you'd be surprised how many people neglect certain areas of their body. Remember areas like your ears, neck, armpits, the tops of your feet, and even the part in your hair. Any skin that will see the light of day should be covered with sunscreen.

  • Years of yoga may have given you incredible flexibility, but it can still be hard to adequately cover hard-to-reach areas such as your back. Use the buddy-system when applying sunscreen to these areas.
  • Thin, summer clothing doesn’t typically offer much sun protection. For example, a white t-shirt may only have a sun protection factor (SPF) of 7. Wear clothes designed to block UV rays, or wear sunscreen under your clothes.

#5 Pay extra attention to the face, neck, and head.

The face and neck are the most common places on the body for skin cancers to form (over 90% are diagnosed in this area)—but people tend to miss about 10% of their face when they put on sunscreen. According to one study, about 13% of people missed their eyelids, and 77% of people missed spots between the inner corners of the eyes and the bridge of the nose. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Use a lip balm or lip sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 on your lips.
  • If you are bald or have thin hair (hello, toddlers!), remember to apply sunscreen to your head, too. Even with thick hair, you should apply sunscreen to the skin exposed where your hair is parted.
  • Use physical barriers, such as wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses—which can provide added protection for the high-risk areas around the eyes.

#6 Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.

When in doubt, reapply. Better to be safe than sorry! Even if you're taking a break in the shade, you can still be hit by harmful UV rays that bounce off the water, sand, or sidewalk. They can even reflect off of grass! 

Bonus Sunscreen Tips for Toddlers:

  • Apply your sunscreen first and let them help. Setting a good example is always a good idea, and letting them help put it on you makes them more likely to be chill about you helping put it on them. Teamwork! (Just be careful when it comes to faces to avoid getting it in anyone’s eyes.)
  • Make it fun! Draw pictures or practice letters and numbers as you’re putting it on their skin before rubbing it in. 
  • Use “tools.” If your child doesn’t like the feeling of sunscreen, get creative with how you apply it. Maybe try a make-up sponge or even a small rubber spatula (always making sure to rub it in good). Hey, anything’s worth a shot to get the job done!
  • Have snacks and distractions for reapplication time. Snacks are an excellent resource to help you buy time for reapplication. And if you need even more help, have a special toy that only comes out during this crucial waiting period. 
Do you have more tips for applying sunscreen to toddlers? We’d love to hear (and we bet other parents would, too). Please share them in the comments below!