3 Ways You're Using Sunblock Wrong, and How to Get Major SPF Protection

It's the heat of summer: double down on your SPF prowess! 

If the scary stats about skin cancer aren’t enough to get you into a serious SPF routine, maybe we can appeal to your vanity. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that an estimated 90 percent of skin aging is caused by the sun, and that people who use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily show 24 percent less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.

But sunscreen use is prone to human-error (we unfortunately have the tan lines to show for it). The Lookbook chatted SPF best practices with Rutledge Forney, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Atlanta, Georgia who is also a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. The good news that even if you’ve been negligent in the past about sun protection, it’s not too late to get it right.

“I grew up in Alabama, I was on the swim team. We did professional sunburning in Alabama. But in my early twenties, I figured it out, and ever since I have been a sun avoider,” Dr. Forney says. “Ever since, my skin looks so different from my sister and my friends who didn't get the gospel of sun protection. You can make a huge difference in your skin right now if you get aggressive about your sun protection. You might not notice it tomorrow but you will notice it in 20 years.” Here are the most common sunblock mistakes she sees in her patients and her tips for protecting yourself from the sun’s rays. 

1.  Putting sunscreen on AFTER you put your swimsuit on

“People always leave this border of sunburn,” Dr. Forney says. “I've seen so many young women with a half-an-inch sunburn all the way that outlines the top of their bikini top and the top of their bikini bottom because they don't want to get sunscreen on the bikini.”

Avoid that burn by putting on a base layer of sunscreen all over your body and let in sink in BEFORE you get dressed for the beach. “Put your sunscreen on first thing in the morning and use a high SPF, then when you get to the beach, you can reapply," Dr. Forney says. 

2.  Applying your daily SPF to just your face

You’re diligent about slathering sunscreen all over your face every single day. But are you getting sunscreen on your neck too?  “The biggest issue is people stop at their jawline,” says Dr. Forney. “They don't carry it down to their neck and their chest.”

So take a few more seconds in your beauty routine to keep swiping on SPF. “We see so many people with brown spots on their chest and the sides of their neck that they hate, but they didn't realize that they needed to pull that sunscreen or moisturizer all the way down,” she says.

3.  Even 15 minutes out in the sun without SPF is too much

I asked Dr. Forney if I really have to wear sunscreen if I’m just walking my dog around the block. I could almost see her look of disappointment over the phone. “Nobody every thinks about the little bit of extra sun you get, day in, day out, whether you're walking from the car to the supermarket or walking your dog for 15 minutes, or driving. It all makes a huge difference. It adds up,” she explained.

4.   What should I do if I screw up my sunblock and get burned? Can I reverse the damage?

“You really can't reverse the damage, but you can try to halt the burn,” Dr. Forney says. A sunburn is just like getting burned in the kitchen: you need to cool down the skin. “Put something cold as quick as possible, because the heat continues to penetrate into the skin and continues to do deeper and deeper damage," she explains.

Dr. Forney recommends applying ice packs to the burn or even blowing the sunburn with a hair dryer on its cool setting. “If it feels warm, it's inflamed and still doing you some harm,” says Dr. Forney. You can also use aloe or over-the-counter-products with menthol in them to cool the skin, and take an aspirin to help with inflammation. Find more tips for sunburn care here.

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But to avoid sunburns in the first place, there are steps you can take in addition to carefully applying SPF. Dr. Forney recommends putting clear UV film in your car to block 98% of UV rays and using SPF 50 clothing. There’s one low-tech option that absolutely helps too: “My favorite thing is to wear a hat,” she says. “It covers your face, it doesn't sweat off. Don't think of it as a fashion item, think of it as an umbrella.” Luckily, there are plenty of floppy sun hats available right now that are plenty fashionable too.  

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