Don’t forget to apply SPF this summer: Dermatologists share sun protection tips

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If you forgot to apply sunscreen before heading outside today, remember to do so for yourself. You need to make sure you get the right SPF to protect yourself from harmful UV rays, especially since the summer of 2024 comes after the hottest year on record.

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Which SPF should you use? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, SPF, or sun protection factor, indicates the amount of solar energy needed to cause a sunburn on protected skin compared to unprotected skin. The logic is, then, that when you’re outside and facing the sun’s rays, wearing a higher SPF will give you better protection.

Is a sunscreen with a higher SPF more protective in a measurable way that really matters? According to Dr. Steven Daveluy, board-certified dermatologist and program director at the Wayne State University Department of Dermatology, the difference tested between SPF 30 and SPF 50 is small. He gave a difference of 96.7% blocking versus 98% blocking in one example. Daveluy said in an email that research done on people applying sunscreen in “real life” has shown that higher SPFs are more protective.

Combine that with the fact that you’re probably not applying enough sunscreen — studies have shown that people apply only 25% to 50% of the amount they should, Daveluy said — and a higher SPF may be more protective.

“When wearing shorts and a T-shirt, you should use about 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover your head, neck, arms and legs,” Daveluy recommends. He also says people without hair should use a little more.

“That means your 3-ounce tube of sunscreen can only be used three times,” Daveluy said. “Most people don’t use that much.”

Read more: Best Facial Sunscreen

How much SPF do you need in a sunscreen?

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends that your sunscreen should be SPF 30 or higher. It also advises you to look for a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection (which protects against both UVA and UVB rays) and make sure it’s water resistant.

“If you follow the recommendations for the proper amount of sunscreen, SPF 30 is great,” Daveluy said. However, if you feel like you’re skimping on layers, a higher SPF may provide more benefits. He added that he generally recommends looking for at least SPF 50 or 60.

Read more: Don’t worry: These clothes can help you stay cool amid high temperatures

Does skin color matter when choosing SPF?

People with darker skin have more melanin, which provides some protection from the sun’s harmful rays. For this reason, skin cancer rates are lower in people of color than in white people, but the risk is not zero. Research also suggests that people of color may be more likely to have skin cancer go undiagnosed or diagnosed late, which can lead to more dangerous consequences. (It’s also important to note that melanoma can have causes other than exposure to sunlight or UV rays, and it can appear in areas that aren’t usually exposed to the sun.)

“SPF 30 is the minimum for everyone,” Daveluy said. Tinted sunscreens may be better for darker skin, he added, because they make the skin less visible.

“If you have very fair skin, a higher (SPF) number might be a good idea, especially if you’re not using the proper amount, because you’ll be able to see the consequences of less use more easily,” Daveluy said.

Are there any ‘red flags’ related to sunscreen or SPF?

As long as you’re using at least SPF 30, applying it correctly, and looking for products that are broad-spectrum and water-resistant, you’ve got the basics covered. Daveluy said that for those with sensitive skin, a mineral sunscreen with “active ingredients of zinc and/or titanium” could be a good option.

Daveluy also recommends other ways to avoid the sun, including wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing and staying in the shade when possible. But don’t forget that sunscreens have a decades-proven safety record, she said.

“The biggest threat to sunscreen are people or reports that try to tell you that sunscreen is not safe,” Daveluy said.

Read more: Are you applying enough sunscreen?

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