3rd July, 202216 min read

How often should you apply sunscreen and which is best?

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If you want to protect your skin from being damaged by the sun, staying out of it is the best way – especially between 11am and 3pm, when it’s strongest. But avoiding the sun completely isn’t always practical. So if you’re working or exercising outdoors, or you just want to enjoy yourself at a festival, family barbecue or on the beach, you need sun protection. That’s where sunscreen - or suncream as it’s sometimes called - comes in. Wearing it protects your skin from

burning
and reduces your risk of
skin cancer
.

“Even if you don’t live in the sunniest climate, it’s still really important to wear sunscreen through the summer months, and when you’re on a sunny holiday,” says

Dr Adiele Hoffman
, doctor and Healthily expert. “Some dermatologists recommend wearing it all year round if you want to give your skin maximum protection. Remember that on cloudy days, the sun’s rays can still reach you. And the sun can reflect strongly off surfaces like snow, water and cement. So you don’t just need it when it’s hot.”

Read more about the

sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light and its effects
.

Sunscreen not only helps to prevent painful sunburn, it can also help to lower your risk of skin cancer, which can affect anyone, of any age, race or gender. Suncream also has beauty benefits - it helps prevent signs of premature aging, such as wrinkles and age spots. But with so many types of suncream available, which should you use? And what’s the right way to apply it? Our guide has the answers you need.

SPF and UVA ratings explained

You’re probably used to checking the SPF (sun protection factor) of a sunscreen. But that’s not the only thing you need to look out for. Make sure you choose a sunscreen labelled ‘broad spectrum’, which shows it protects you from both:

  • UVB rays, which cause burning and most skin cancers - the SPF number tells you how much protection a sunscreen gives
  • UVA rays, which cause long-term skin damage like wrinkles, and play a role in some skin cancers. A sunscreen’s UVA rating tells you how much it protects you from these rays

The SPF number

  • all sunscreens have an SPF number, ranging from 2 to 50+. The number tells you how much longer you can be exposed to UVB rays before burning when you’ve applied sunscreen properly, compared to wearing no sunscreen. For example, if you burn in 10 minutes without sunscreen, and 150 minutes if you’re wearing it, the SPF of that sunscreen is 15
  • the higher the SPF number, the better you can expect to be protected. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 gives you about 94% protection against UVB. That goes up to 97% with SPF 30 and 98% with SPF 50+
  • there are a few things to think about when you choose an SPF. For example, UVB is much more intense in the middle of the day compared to early morning or late afternoon, and in countries at lower latitudes. And if you have fair skin, you’re more susceptible to damage from UVB than people with dark skin. All these things might affect the rating you choose. Getting the maximum protection possible from your sunscreen also depends on you applying suncream properly
  • as a general rule, experts recommend you use at least SPF 30

The UVA rating

  • you should also check the UVA rating. In the UK and other European countries, a star rating (from 1 to 5) shows how much UVA protection a sunscreen has - you should go for one with at least 4 stars
  • other countries have different systems - some, like Japan, have a PA rating and you’ll see PA+, PA++, PA+++ or PA++++ on the label - PA++++ gives the most protection. In the US, a sunscreen can only be called ‘broad spectrum’ if it has UVA protection that’s in proportion to its SPF - so, if a sunscreen has a high SPF, you can expect it to have a high UVA rating too

Chemical or mineral sunscreen?

Sunscreen works by reducing the intensity of the sun’s UV rays, which can damage your skin. There are 2 types of sunscreen that do this in different ways:

  • chemical sunscreens contain chemicals that soak up UV rays. Some of the chemicals that absorb UV degrade when they’re exposed to sunlight, so chemicals that don’t (photostable chemicals) are often added. These include octocrylene and bemotrizinol. Other active ingredients you may see on the label include oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, homosalate, ensulizol and avobenzone
  • mineral sunscreens are sometimes called physical sunscreens or sunblocks because they protect the skin with a physical barrier. They contain minerals like zinc or titanium dioxide, which sit on your skin. It used to be thought mineral sunscreens reflect or scatter UV rays away from skin but more recent research suggests they also absorb UV rays

Both chemical and mineral sunscreens are effective at protecting your skin - but your skin type (see below, What’s Best For My Skin Type?) is one thing that may help you decide between them.

Another thing to think about is the effect of sunscreens washing off into the ocean. Unfortunately, substances found in some chemical sunscreens have been found to damage coral reefs - you may decide to choose ‘reef-safe’ mineral sunscreens, which don’t harm coral. Whichever type you’re using, apply it 30 minutes before you go in the sun.

What form should I choose?

Once you’ve thought about the SPF and UV rating and decided whether you want a mineral or chemical sunscreen, you’ll need to figure out what formulation’s right for you. Sunscreens come in lots of different forms, including:

  • gel
  • cream
  • spray
  • stick
  • roll on
  • oil
  • milk
  • lotion
  • foam
  • ointment

The form you go for is mostly down to personal preference. But there are a few things to consider:

  • some formulations are better for certain skin types. If you have oily skin, you may find it’s better to choose an alcohol-based lotion or spray, while a heavier cream can be moisturising for dry skin
  • a stick can be a good choice for areas like your lips, and a roll-on might be convenient if you’re carrying it around with you
  • if you’ll be playing sport and getting sweaty, or you’re planning to swim, wear a water-resistant sunscreen. The label will show how long this type of sunscreen protects you in water - for example: ‘water resistant 40 minutes’. But even if a sunscreen’s labelled water resistant, you should still reapply it after swimming as you’ll probably rub it off with your towel

What’s best for my skin type?

Our tailored tips will help you put all the information together to choose the right sunscreen for you.

For sensitive skin

  • your skin may be extra sensitive to the sun. You may also react to ingredients in sunscreen
  • a mineral sunscreen may be less irritating as it sits on the surface rather than being absorbed by your skin
  • if you have eczema or rosacea, it can be harder to find a sunscreen that doesn’t irritate your skin, whether that’s because of its base, chemicals or preservatives. Try looking for sunscreens that have these words on the label:
    • sensitive skin
    • fragrance free
    • paraben free
    • mineral base
    • hypoallergenic
  • do a patch test - dabbing a little on a small area of skin - 24-48 hours before you try a new sunscreen, to check it doesn’t cause any kind of reaction, like a rash, itchiness or redness
  • if you keep getting rashes with sunscreen, a dermatologist may be able to arrange more formal allergy patch testing to work out if you’re allergic to any specific ingredients

For acne-prone skin

  • some ingredients in sunscreens can lead to outbreaks but a mineral sunscreen may be less likely to trigger them
  • always choose a sunscreen that’s oil-free and doesn’t clog pores (it will be labelled non-comedogenic)
  • some medications used to treat acne can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so check with a doctor before choosing your sunscreen
  • an alcohol-based sunscreen will be lighter on your skin

For darker skin

  • darker skins have more of the pigment melanin, which absorbs UV rays to give some natural protection - equivalent to wearing sunscreen with an SPF of around 2-4
  • but you can still burn in the sun, so it's important to wear sunscreen when you’re outdoors. You might find that your skin burns, itches or feels tender, rather than changing colour
  • some mineral sunscreens can leave a white cast on your skin. You can try a tinted version - the tint helps cancel out the chalky-white look - and you can also find clear versions of mineral sunscreen. Or try a chemical sunscreen, which is less likely to leave a film on your skin

For fair skin

  • very fair skin (you may also have red hair and light eyes, and notice you burn easily) has low levels of melanin. This means it doesn’t have much natural protection from the sun
  • you need to take extra care to use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher outdoors, and wear clothing that helps cover your skin from the sun (see Doctor’s Tip below)

For kids

  • babies younger than 6 months old shouldn’t be exposed to the sun at all - their skin is highly sensitive at this age. Try to keep them out of the sun as much as possible. Keep their skin covered with loose clothing and make sure they wear sunglasses and sun hats
  • sunscreen is safe for babies once they reach 6 months but you should still follow the advice above and keep them out of the sun
  • protect older children with a sunscreen that's specifically designed for them, is water-resistant and broad-spectrum, with a high UVA rating and SPF of 30 or higher. Make sure you reapply it every 2 hours while they’re outside
  • mineral-based sunscreens or formulas developed for toddlers and children are often less likely to irritate their skin
  • it can be hard to keep young ones still for long enough to apply sunscreen, so a spray or stick may be easiest

Get the best from your sun protection

How to apply your sunscreen

Whatever the SPF, sunscreen only works if you use enough and put it on properly. Most people don’t even apply half the amount they need to get the SPF protection level on the bottle. Here’s what you need to do:

  • put sunscreen on around 30 minutes before you go outdoors
  • cover all of your exposed skin in sunscreen. To cover the average adult body, you need around 6 to 8 full teaspoons, equivalent to about 35ml
  • make sure you rub it in properly
  • don’t fall into the common trap of forgetting your ears, feet and - for people with thinning hair - the top of your head (or wear a hat)

How often should you apply sunscreen?

  • make sure you reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Not only can the SPF factor stop working after a while, sweating can cause sunscreen to slide off, and your clothes can rub it off as you move around
  • put sunscreen on straight away after swimming or sweating, even if your sunscreen has ‘water-resistant’ written on the bottle. Studies have shown that water-resistant sunscreen protects the skin from UV rays when you’re in the water, but only for a while. Plus you’re likely to rub off whatever’s left when you dry yourself with a towel
  • follow the rules above even if your sunscreen has ‘all day’ on the label. “Current advice from dermatologists is that sunscreen doesn’t usually last all day, and to give the best protection, needs to be applied often, with a lot rubbed in during each application,” says Dr Adiele Hoffman. “If you’re planning to be out in the sun for a long time, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading out, then again immediately before, to ensure you haven’t missed any areas. Pay special attention to the ears, neck and face - and head, if you’re bald or have thinning hair.”

Should you protect your face every day?

Wearing sunscreen on your face every day is one of the best ways to protect your skin from skin damage, skin cancer and premature ageing. Why not make it a part of your morning routine? Here’s how.

  • creams are usually best for your face (unless you have oily, acne-prone skin). Half a teaspoon is the recommended amount for covering your whole face and neck
  • tinted sunscreen can be a good choice for your face, as it won’t leave white marks (this is particularly useful if you have darker skin)
  • you can wear sunscreen under makeup and with other skincare products. “You'll read different things about which order to apply sunscreen, skincare and foundation - some experts recommend applying sunscreen first, but either way including it in your daily routine is the important thing,” says Dr Adiele Hoffman. “Some sunscreen manufacturers give advice on what they recommend, so check with your brand.”
  • makeup like foundation often has an SPF, but you’d need to put on a lot to give you enough coverage, so don’t rely on it alone - always use a sunscreen too
  • it’s important to protect your lips and the delicate skin around your eyes with water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen. For lips, a lip balm or lipstick with SPF 30+ can work well. For the eye area, you could try a sunscreen stick, less likely than a cream to seep into your eyes. If sunscreen irritates your eyelids, an alternative is to wear good quality sunglasses. But a combination of sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat give the best defence. Read more about
    eyecare in the sun

Does sunscreen have an expiry date?

Unopened sunscreen goes out of date after 3 years, so it’s best to get rid of it after this time, even if it doesn't have an expiry date on it. Once you’ve opened the bottle, though, it will go out of date much more quickly and stop working as well. You can see how long the ‘period after opening’ time is by looking for a symbol of an opened bottle, with a number next to or inside it, telling you how many months you can use the product after opening it.

Sunscreen should be stored in a cool, dry place. When taking it out with you, keep it cool by wrapping it in a towel, or perhaps storing in a cool box.

Check before using insect repellent with sunscreen

Try to avoid using insect repellent that contains DEET with sunscreen, as research has found it can make sun protection less effective. Choose insect repellent without DEET if possible. Otherwise, if you’re using DEET, make sure you reapply sunscreen more often.

Are there any safety risks with using sunscreen?

You may be worried about parabens, which are artificial chemicals used as a preservative in body care products and cosmetics. They can be found in some sunscreens, while some are paraben-free.

Some people are concerned parabens are linked with cancer but there isn’t any evidence for this. However, sunscreens that contain parabens may not be suitable for people with sensitive or allergy-prone skin. If that’s you, look for a paraben-free sunscreen.

If you’re allergic to any of the ingredients in sunscreen, you may end up with a condition called allergic contact dermatitis, which causes a rash where sunscreen’s been put on, or sometimes a stinging feeling without any rash or redness. Contact dermatitis is more common in people who have eczema or sensitive skin.

If you’ve had a reaction to sunscreen or know you have sensitive skin, ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a sunscreen that’s less likely to cause problems. When you’re trying a new one, do a patch test - dabbing on a little in a small area 24-48 hours before you want to use it, to check there’s no reaction.

Read more

sun-savvy tips to keep your skin and yourself healthy
.

Your health questions answered

Does suncream stop you from tanning?

“Technically, yes. If sunscreen is applied properly, it stops your skin becoming tanned. This is because the sunscreen reduces the amount of UV that your skin is exposed to. But if you don’t apply it properly or you use a lower SPF, some UV will get through to your skin so you might tan, rather than burning. Tanning is still a sign of skin damage, though, and it puts you at risk of skin cancer and premature skin ageing. There’s no safe way to get a tan, whether or not you’re wearing sunscreen.”

Dr Ann Nainan
, doctor and Healthily expert

Do natural and vegan sunscreen work?

“For some people, it may be important to use a sunscreen that’s based on natural ingredients, and/or is vegan-friendly, meaning it contains no ingredients derived from animals and is cruelty-free. It should be just as effective as other sunscreens, as long as you follow all the advice above.”
Dr Ann Nainan

Doctor’s tip

“Don’t just rely on sunscreen. You can also get sun protective clothing, which can be an effective and easy way to protect yourself. You can find clothes made from fabric that has a UV protection factor (UPF) - anything above 40 gives excellent protection. But some ordinary clothing gives good protection too. As a general rule, dense material like denim, merino wool and any tightly woven fabric is a good choice (hold it up to the light to check how thick it is), and dark colours are a lot more protective than light ones.”
Dr Adiele Hoffman, doctor and Healthily expert

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.