A Definitive Guide To Applying Sunscreen

From the most common spots people miss to how to stay adequately protected from head to toe, The AEDITION spoke to board certified dermatologists about the best way to apply sunscreen.
Written by Garrett Munce
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A Definitive Guide To Applying Sunscreenverona studio/Shutterstock

At this point, you probably know you need to be wearing sunscreen, right? You may buy a bottle of it at the beginning of the summer (i.e. now) and plan to diligently apply it every time you’re at the beach or the pool. You may even be one of those people who wears sunscreen every day (kudos to you!) no matter if you’re heading to the shore or just going for a walk in your neighborhood.

But for many people, knowing you should wear sunscreen and actually wearing it are two different things. In fact, a recent study by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) found that while 76 percent of Americans understood the importance of sunscreen, only 40 percent actually wear it on a regular basis. Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of respondents in a recent survey by Neutrogena admitted that they’ve been more focused on health-related acts like handwashing during the COVID-19 pandemic than sunscreen application. As a result, 20 percent said they are applying sunscreen less often than usual.

Putting on sunscreen at all is the first step, but how and where you apply it are the next. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, only one third of people applied sunscreen on all exposed skin. Despite the AAD’s insistence that sunscreen only works when applied properly, there is ongoing confusion among most people about how to do it.

If you’ve ever had a gnarly sunburn on the back of your knees or a strip of blistering red on your scalp, you know that a cursory rub of sunblock is not going to cut it. There are plenty of places even the most diligent sunscreen users often forget, and leaving those spots exposed increases the risk of sun damage even if you think you’re covered. We spoke to top dermatologists to find out what these places are, how to avoid missing them, and the best way to apply sunscreen from head to toe.

The Most Common Places People Forget To Apply Sunscreen

Sun damage can happen any place there is exposed skin that’s not protected by sunscreen or some other form of sun protection. In fact, “the most common places for non-melanoma skin cancers are the face, chest, and arms — places where the sun exposure is the highest,” says Adriana Lombardi, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Advanced Laser and Skin Cancer Center in New Jersey. When applying sunscreen, most people look to those places first for the same reason (i.e. they’re exposed). But there are plenty of other places people tend to forget, including:

1. Ears

Even when applying sunscreen to the face, it’s common to forget to apply it on your ears, too. When hair is cut short or pulled back or if you’re wearing a baseball cap, the ears are especially exposed and at high-risk for sunburn if they're not protected.

2. Lips

The lips are a common place to find skin cancer because even if “you put sunscreen on your face, you rarely put it on your lips,” says Morgan Rabach, MD, a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical in New York City. “It’s an easy place to miss.” Using a lip balm with SPF (the Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Color Balm SPF 50 has a subtle tint, while the Burt's Bees All-Weather SPF 15 Moisturizing Lip Balm is a good sheer option) regularly can help protect the sensitive lip area from burning. Added bonus? It will help reduce the chance of visible signs of aging (think: fine lines), too.

3. Scalp

Both Dr. Lombardi and Dr. Rabach say they regularly see sunburns on the scalp — especially along the part or in patients with thinning hair. To apply sunscreen to your scalp without messing up your ‘do, Dr. Rabach suggests using a mineral sunscreen with a brush applicator (we’re fans of the Supergoop Poof Part Powder) to cover any exposed skin. “If you have thinning hair or a large part, use regular sunscreen,” she adds. Another option is to wear a hat with UPF protection (more on that below!).

4. Tops of Hands and Feet

During sandal season, feet are exposed to sun much more regularly, but people still forget to apply sunscreen to them, Dr. Rabach says. The same goes for hands, which are regularly exposed to sun without protection. Hand creams with SPF — like the Deborah Lippmann Rich Girl Broad Spectrum SPF 25 Hand Cream — tend to be great, non-greasy options.

5. Back

In men, the most common place to find melanoma is on the back, Dr. Lombardi shares. Not only is your back hard to reach on your own, but it’s “more difficult to see to monitor for changing moles,” she says. That means not only is asking someone else to apply sunscreen on your back important, but getting regular skin checks both at home and with your dermatologist is as well.

6. Back of the Legs

Dr. Lombardi notes that the back of the legs is the most common place to see melanoma in women. Exposed legs — especially in sunny months like summer — means that applying sunscreen on both the front and back of legs daily is essential.

7. Around Waistbands and Under Straps

“Sometimes you’ll have sunscreen on your chest or back, but there will be a line around the band where you haven’t applied it,” Dr. Rabach warns. The same goes for straps of any kind, which tend to move around as you move throughout the day. She recommends tucking your fingers at least an inch below waistbands and straps when applying sunscreen for maximum protection.

How to Apply Sunscreen Properly

As you can probably tell by now, correctly applying sunscreen can go a long way towards properly covering these tricky areas to prevent potential sun damage or skin cancer. According to AAD guidelines, you should always use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 and reapply it every two hours (rain or shine!). But there is more you can do to make sure you’re protected.

Put It On Inside

“When going to the beach or engaging in activities that have higher than usual exposure to the sun, I recommend applying sunscreen all over before leaving the house,” Dr. Lombardi says. Putting it on inside ensures that you get more complete coverage and that you can also tell more easily if you’ve missed a spot.

“Putting on sunscreen in front of a mirror is really helpful,” Dr. Rabach adds, as it allows you to make sure you’re covering hard-to-reach places. Make sure you’re applying sunscreen underneath all elastic bands or straps — or, better yet, apply it to your body before putting on your swimsuit. “Have a system,” she says. “Go top to bottom or bottom to top and have someone help you with your back.”

What Kind of Sunscreen You Use Matters

While all dermatologists agree that sunscreen is essential, they differ on what kind is best. “I always recommend mineral-based sunscreens, as they physically block the skin from the sun,” Dr. Lombardi says. Dr. Rabach, however, says that usually people prefer chemical sunscreens for their bodies because they’re often easier to apply to large areas. Be sure to keep in mind, however, that “chemical sunscreens are going to take 20 to 30 minutes before they even start working,” she says, which is all the more reason to apply them before you go out. “If you’re applying [chemical] sunscreen outside at the beach or the pool, you basically have 30 minutes of exposure before it starts working,” Dr. Rabach says.

Spray vs. Lotion

“Spray sunscreens are easier to apply on the body and on children,” says Samer Jaber, MD, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City. “But people often underapply them or miss spots.” He says that if you’re going to use a spray sunscreen, make sure to go over the same spot multiple times to make sure you applied enough. And, even if you’re using a spray sunscreen, you should still rub it into your skin to ensure adequate coverage.

However, spray sunscreens may pose more risk than just inadequate coverage. “There is a lot of data that shows [spray sunscreens] are really bad when you breathe them in,” Dr. Rabach says. “As soon as you smell the sunscreen, you’re breathing it in.” If you’re using a spray sunscreen, don’t do it in an enclosed area and never put it on your face. “Instead spray it on your hands first and then rub it on your face,” Dr. Jaber suggests.

Try Sun-Protective Clothing

If you’re especially worried about missing spots, consider wearing specially designed sun protective clothing when outside. “It’s much easier to wear clothing than to remember to reapply sunscreen every two ours when you’re out and about,” Dr. Jaber says. Not only does it remove the need to reapply, but it also could offer better protection than sunscreen in general. “There is a common misconception that, by applying sunscreen, you’re blocking 100 percent of UV rays, but even with the highest SPF that’s not true,” he says. Using physical protection like hats, sunglasses, clothing, and even umbrellas with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is more effective.

Boost With Supplements

“Although not a substitute for sunscreen, some supplements protect skin from the inside out,” Dr. Lombardi says. “In patients that are more at risk of skin cancer or that may have extensive sun damage, I recommend using Heliocare in addition to sunblock to give them extra photo protection.” She also recommends Sunisdin Softgel Capsules — antioxidant supplements that can make the skin more resilient against the sun. But remember: These supplements do not replace sunscreen, so you still need to apply and reapply sunblock.

The Takeaway

Wearing sunscreen regularly is the first step in fighting against sun damage and skin cancer, but you also need to apply it properly. Every time you apply sunscreen, remember these commonly missed areas and make sure to cover them effectively. Whether you change the type of sunscreen you’re using or opt for sun protective clothing, making sure you’re completely covered can make all the difference.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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GARRETT MUNCEis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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