How to Apply Sunscreen the Right Way

By now, you probably already know you need to apply sunscreen ahead of any potential sun exposure. This includes wearing sunscreen on any areas of skin that are exposed to the sun, paying particular attention to the face, neck, arms and legs—not just on beach days, but every day. And to truly safeguard against the sun’s harmful UV rays, you should also reapply sunscreen throughout the day. But with so many SPF numbers and in so many forms—from creams and gels to sprays and oils—how can you be sure you’re truly protecting your skin the right way? 

Here, we feature some of our favorite dermatologist-approved tips for applying sunscreen so you can be sure you’re really covered. 

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 101

As a quick refresher on the sun protection factor (or SPF) that’s listed on any sunscreen package, SPF is a measure of the amount of solar energy—that is, UV radiation from the sun—that is required to produce a sunburn on protected skin. 

As we’ve written about in our recent blog on sunscreen ingredients, this number does not directly correlate to the time or duration of sun exposure, though this is a common and widely held misconception. It isn’t about time—it’s about solar energy. So, for example, an SPF 50 does not necessarily mean you can safely spend 50 minutes in the sun without burning; rather, it means that by wearing it, you would be protected from the sun’s rays by a factor of 50, versus not wearing sun protection at all. The use of SPF numbers is regulated by the FDA and can only be displayed on sun care packaging after rigorous testing. 

The truth is, with so many different skin types and propensities toward burning, there isn’t one simple way to calculate the risk of sun damage to every individual equally. But generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the greater the protection from harmful UV rays. That’s why most experts agree that an SPF 30 or higher, as a baseline, is the right approach to daily sun protection. 

Types of Sunscreens

With new and improved sunscreen formulations and application methods seemingly coming to market every day, it can be hard to tell which type of sunscreen is right for you. Still, there are a few popular formats that reign supreme. 


There’s a good reason that lotions continue to be one of the most popular formulas for sunscreen. Besides being portable and easy to apply, sunscreen lotions can often be purchased in TSA-approved containers to make those jaunts to the islands a little easier. 


It’s hard to deny, sunscreen sprays can be even easier to apply than lotions, particularly on hard-to-reach areas. Available in non-aerosol continuous spray formulas, as well as in pump sprays, this kind of sunscreen is a breeze to reapply when needed. 

Oils and Gels

Building on the success of sunscreen lotions, oils and gels have exploded in popularity in recent years, thanks to their ease of application. An oil lends an immediate sun-kissed glow to skin, and both make it easy to spot any missed areas of application. 

Applying Sunscreen Correctly 

Whatever your preferred sun protection method—lotion, spray, oil or otherwise—leading dermatologists do agree on a few tips for applying suntan lotion. 

When to Apply

  • Generally speaking, you should apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure so that it can be properly bind to the skin. Even if you’re not planning a beach day, do this daily on your most vulnerable areas of skin: the face, neck, arms, legs, and anywhere else that may be exposed to the sun’s UV rays.
  • Always reapply sunscreen after swimming, bathing, taking a dip in a hot tub, or otherwise exposing your skin to water. This also  includes strenuous exercise that may cause you to sweat, such as a run or workout. Do this even if your sunscreen is labeled as water resistant— even these formulas can still break down with water and become less effective over time.
  • Continue to reapply sunscreen throughout the day—even in the absence of water exposure or sweat—if you are outdoors for any extended period of time. This includes working outside, gardening, or spending a day at the park, beach or pool. 

How Much to Apply

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the average person needs around one ounce of sunscreen—think: enough to fill a standard shot glass—for an initial application, and maybe even more. This measurement is based on lotion, but the same principle applies to other formulations. To be safe, start with that amount and apply liberally. Don’t be afraid to add more sunscreen for any areas you may have missed. Be certain to also reapply throughout the day, especially if you’re spending a prolonged time outdoors. 

How to Apply

This may depend slightly on your preferred formulation—lotion, oil, gel, spray or otherwise—but the following tips apply in just about any instance.

  • Shake well to ensure any separated ingredients are re-distributed before application.
  • When in doubt, apply more than you think you need!
  • Always take care when applying sunscreen around the eyes. When using a sunscreen spray, spray the sunscreen on your hands, and then apply to your face. 
  • Use sunscreen on all parts of your exposed skin, and don’t forget hidden places like the ears, hands, feet, ankles, backs of knees, and anywhere else the sun’s rays might find.