11 of the most common sunscreen mistakes



As temperatures rise across Britain, more and more people are venturing outside, going for walks, barbecuing and sunbathing in the park.

But as we enter the summer season, it’s important to know how to use sunscreen properly and make sure you protect yourself as best as possible.

According to Cancer Research UK, 86 percent of melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK are preventable.

The sun is highest in the sky and at its strongest in the middle of the day, so where possible people should try to stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm.

Which? have rounded up 11 of the most common sunscreen mistakes to avoid to ensure you’re safe in the sun.

As we enter the summer season, it’s important to know how to use sunscreen properly and make sure you protect yourself as best as possible (stock image)

Not using enough sunscreen – and not reapplying it often

The World Health Organization (WHO) says most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to reach the SPF on the package.

This means that if you buy a product that says SPF 50, but only apply a thin layer of it to your skin, the protection may be much lower than you think.

The WHO recommends about one teaspoon of sunscreen per limb, which works out to about seven teaspoons if you apply the product to your entire body.

Sunscreen should also be reapplied regularly throughout the day, especially if you have been swimming in the sea or a pool or sweating while running.

A 2020 Cancer Research UK survey found that only 37 percent of people take their sunscreen with them to apply throughout the day.

A similar percentage also do not apply sunscreen when they are in the garden or exercising outside.

People also think that cloudy or cloudy days mean you don’t need to wear sunscreen, but you can still get sunburned so you should use it.

Not realizing that some medications make you sensitive to the sun

Those who want to use their sunscreen in addition to a holiday where they expect to swim in the sea or jump into a pool should make do with water-resistant products (stock image)

Some common medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Professor Claire Anderson, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: ‘Quite a number of medicines can make you more photosensitive, including common medicines such as antibiotics, oral contraceptives and antidepressants – but not everyone who takes them will have a reaction.’

Which? says it’s worth checking the fine print on new medications. If you notice an unusual reaction from sun exposure and have recently started a new medication, you should also talk to your pharmacist.

Use SPF makeup instead of sunscreen

Many makeup brands claim to offer SPF in foundations, but I think you usually have to apply several times the normal amount to even get close to the level of protection stated on the package.

You’re also less likely to reapply makeup regularly enough to reach the SPF stated on the package.

Professor Brian Diffey, emeritus professor of photobiology at Newcastle University, said: ‘Apply sunscreen first as it needs to bind to the outer layer of the skin to be effective.’

If you apply makeup first, the sunscreen may not set properly, which could compromise its ability to protect you.

Over-reliance on once-a-day or waterproof claims

Those who want to use their sunscreen in addition to a holiday where they expect to swim in the sea or jump into a pool should make do with water-resistant products.

Which? says claims about once-a-day or water-resistant products are often based on very specific testing criteria.

These can often be found in small letters on the back of the bottle.

When the organization tested once-a-day sunscreens in 2016, it found that the SPF delivered dropped by 74 percent after six to eight hours of use.

The tests also showed that salt water, chlorinated water and fast running water made waterproof sunscreens less effective.

The British Skin Foundation warns that sunscreen can be removed by swimming, sweating, toweling or clothing rubbing against your skin.

Even if you use a lot of these products, it’s worth reapplying them so you protect yourself and your loved ones from the sun.

Using old or outdated sunscreen

You might be tempted to grab a bottle you never drank a few summers ago and take it to the park.

But sunscreen usually only lasts one to two years after opening, which means it may not protect you as well as you think. active ingredients in the product can be broken down.

You can use the expiration date by looking for an illustration of a round jar with an open lid on the back of the bottle.

This states how long you can use the package after it has been opened. If it says 12M, it means that it is fine to use after opening, 24M is 24 months.

Leaving your sunscreen in direct sunlight can also damage the active ingredients in the bottle.

It’s best to keep it in a cool, dark place and cover it with other items when you’re out and about.

Thinking that dark skin protects you

The NHS says that although people with brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer than those with lighter skin, you should still be careful in the sun (stock image)

Which? says a 2021 review article published in the journal Skin Health & Disease found that the risk of skin cancer in people with dark skin is underestimated.

The study also found that people with darker skin are less likely to use sunscreen, report sunburn less often and seek medical attention for skin cancer later.

The NHS says that although people with brown or black skin are less likely to get skin cancer than those with lighter skin, you should still be careful in the sun and avoid sunburn, as people of all skin tones can get skin cancer.

Those with darker skin tones may not experience obvious color changes from sunburn; it can instead manifest itself in the form of sore, itchy, and sensitive skin.

People with black or brown skin usually develop melanoma on the soles of the feet, palms of the hands or under a nail.

Don’t apply sunscreen before you’re outside

Sunscreen should ideally be applied about 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and before insect repellent, moisturizer and makeup.

Most common sunscreens are chemically based, meaning they work by absorbing UV rays and therefore need to penetrate the skin for optimal protection.

The other type of sun protection is mineral blocks, which sit on top of the skin and reflect the light away. These should also be applied in advance for the best results.

Misunderstanding how SPF numbers work

The SPF (which means sun protection factor) is an indication of the proportion of UVB rays that a product filters.

Those with higher SPFs filter out more than lower ones and the NHS recommends a minimum of SPF 30 for everyone, regardless of skin type.

However, if you burn more easily, it may be worth choosing a product with a higher SPF.

SPF 30 filters about 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 50 about 98 percent and SPF 100 about 99 percent.

So regularly reapplying sun protection is very important and it is important to note that a higher SPF does not indicate how long you can stay in the sun without burning.

Reject cheap sunscreen

The rising cost of sunscreen can also be a barrier. Last year, a survey conducted in Britain by the charity Melanoma Focus found that half of people think sunscreen is too expensive.

A whopping 67 percent said they would use more if the product was cheaper, and 10 percent said they don’t use it at all because of the price.

Which? found that cheaper sunscreens from supermarkets and discount stores passed key sun protection tests, alongside the bigger, more expensive brands.

But the UK consumer champion warns that not all cheap sunscreens provide good protection, adding that they include sunscreens that fail tests every year.

Which? recommends paying attention to the safety warning in sunscreen reviews so you know which products to avoid.

Missing sunburn hotspots

Sometimes it can be easy to ‘miss a little’ when applying sunscreen, so it’s especially important not to miss important spots that are often overlooked (stock image)

Sometimes it can be easy to ‘miss a little’ when applying sunscreen, so it’s especially important not to miss these important spots that are often overlooked.

You should pay particular attention to areas that are highly exposed, that are prone to sweating or friction from clothes or towel drying, and to skin that is not much exposed to the sun.

These include the following:

  • Ears, nose, forehead including the hairline and the back of the neck. Don’t forget to protect the eyelids as well, making sure to avoid the eyes themselves.
  • Scalp. Those with bald spots, reduced or thinning hair, partings or short hair should wear a hat and apply a high SPF.
  • Feet and behind the knees. Don’t forget soles, heels, ankles and between the toes.
  • Armpits, which are easily forgotten when applying sunscreen. Make sure you apply it before any deodorant or antiperspirant product you use and reapply it when you sweat.
  • Lips. Use a light protectant/SPF lip balm.

Rely solely on sunscreen

The British Association of Dermatologists warns that no sunscreen will provide 100 percent protection.

The association says sunscreen should not be used in place of covering up with clothing and staying in the shade.

You can protect your skin with clothing and by wearing wide-brimmed or bucket hats that cover sensitive areas, including the neck and ears.

Because the sun is at its strongest in the middle of the day, it is advisable to stay in the shade between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

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