Are you making these common sunscreen mistakes?

Published: July 1, 2020

The sun is out, the sky is blue, not a cloud in the sky – there’s no better way to chase away those blues than a little blast of restorative sunshine.  

At the same time, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years, you’ll be slapping on the lotion and protecting your skin from the sun’s most harmful rays.


Most of us are aware of the dangers – but are you protecting yourself completely?  The evidence suggests most of us aren’t!  Since the 1980s, incidences of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have doubled.

Just to recap, there are two types of sun rays that damage our skin UVA (long-wave) and UVB (shortwave). Our understanding of exactly what kinds of damage each causes to the skin, and how best to protect ourselves, seems to shift every year as new research comes out. For example, it was once thought that only UVB was of concern – but we keep learning more and more about the damage caused by UVA, which has been found to increase skin cancer risk.  UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays and can damage skin cells’ DNA directly and are still the main culprit. But it’s important to protect yourself from both.

Elizabeth Hale, a dermatologist in New York City and a senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, tells us “The statistics are staggering — mortality rates for melanoma are increasing faster than those for all other common cancers after esophageal cancer. Skin cancer is such a unique cancer because we know exactly what causes it — the sun’s ultraviolet rays — and we can limit sun exposure.  Yet over the last 30 years, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, a fact as confusing as it is scary.”

Here are some of the most common sun protection mistakes you might want to tighten up on before stepping outside this summer:

  1. Sunscreen doesn’t start working until 30 minutes after you apply it.  More precisely, it can take up to that amount of time for a film to form on the skin giving you the protection you need.  This is especially true of water-resistant creams and oils – jump in too soon and you’ll wash it all away.
  2. Higher SPF doesn’t mean more protection.  Many people think that SPF 30 is twice as effective as SPF 15. Both of those statements are incorrect, and while it’s important to keep in mind the actual meaning of SPF, it’s also important to realize how much protection you’re actually getting. SPF 15 screens 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 screens 97% and SPF 50 screens 98%.
  3. Your sunscreen has expired?  Most of us have sunscreen from last year’s holiday stashed at the back of the cupboard – but before you reach for it again be careful, it may be past it’s best? The issue is that the chemicals in your suntan cream might have altered – as well as meaning it probably won’t work as well, it could actually react badly with your skin and cause irritation and itching.
  4. Darker-skinned people need sunscreen and sun protection too. Whilst people with darker skin have a built-in SPF, giving them a slightly added protection from sun damage, their skin will still burn too, even in darkly pigmented skin. If you have dark skin, you won’t always feel or see sunburn in the same way as those with lighter skin. It’s not always obvious – which is why you need to be extra vigilant not to get caught out.
  5. You’re probably not using enough.  Even if you’re using SPF 50+ sunscreen every day, there’s a good chance you aren’t properly protected by sunscreen. A recent study demonstrated that on average, people miss 11 per cent of their skin. So be careful – if possible ask someone to help you apply sunscreen to your back. If not, it might be safer to wear a T-shirt or rash vest.  And remember to reapply every 2 hours or when you come out of the water; it doesn’t last all day – even the ones that claim to be long lasting!
  6. Sunscreen should be applied everyday – not just on the beach. Most of the sun damage we get is from cumulative incidental damage.  Walking to work, driving, or even sitting by a window can all add up to cumulative damage over time. Get in the habit of putting on sunscreen every single day.
  7. Do you rely on your SPF make-up or moisturiser? Foundation is designed to cover the skin and even out blemishes and moisturise is design to … well moisturise. The SPF is present as a secondary effect.  It can be sufficient if you’re out in the sun for a short length of time in winter, but it’s important to apply a higher SPF underneath your make-up at other times of the year. And remember, a higher level of SPF will be needed for the face as the skin is thinner and more delicate than that on our bodies.
  8. Are you putting too much in faith in your sun lotion? Don’t rely completely on sun lotion – sun protective clothing is so much easier to use correctly – you don’t have to worry about reapplying it every two hours or sweating it off.  Supplement your sunscreen with a big, floppy hat (a brim that’s at least four inches wide helps cover your forehead, nose, and cheeks), beach throws and t-shirts!
  9. If you have sensitive skin – patch test first. Sunscreens contain chemicals that can clog, irritate and set-off allergies. All of these things can lead to under-application, leaving your skin vulnerable to UV damage, so it’s important to find the right one for you. We found this great article by Health & Beauty Writer, Judy Johnson containing loads of information about chemicals to avoid and tips on sun protection products for sensitive skin.

If you have any questions about cold capping, or anything else related to your chemo treatment, why not join the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group – with thousands of members reaching out to each other, someone will no doubt be able to offer you first hand advice.