How to Prevent Sunburn


In This Article:

Sunburn is a surefire way to put a damper on outdoor fun. While applying (and reapplying) sunscreen isn’t fun, not wearing it puts your skin at serious risk for early signs of aging and skin cancer!

We don’t want anyone to suffer the potentially dangerous, tight, painful feeling of sunburn or the aftermath of peeling and all the other repercussions it causes. Even a mild sunburn where you only see a bit of pink is bad news for your skin—and the more often these happen, the more damage skin gets.

At Paula’s Choice our only goal is to help you have the best skin of your life and being safe in the sun, rain or shine, is always at the top of our list.

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Why Do I Get Sunburned?

Many factors contribute to the risk of sunburn, including skin color, the kind of sunscreen you use, how much sunscreen you apply, how often you reapply sunscreen, the time of day you’re outside, whether you are swimming, and if you’re basking in the sun or seeking shade.

We often hear from people who say they've gotten sunburned even though they applied and reapplied what they think is copious amounts of sunscreen. Getting burned even if you applied sunscreen can happen for these major reasons:

  1. A misunderstanding of how to apply sunscreen and how much counts as “liberal application”.
  2. Applying sunscreen once you get to where you’re going rather than applying it before you leave the house.
  3. Relying just on sunscreen to protect you. Sunglasses, UV-rated clothing, a hat, and seeking shade is as important as sunscreen.
  4. Basking or exercising in the sun thinking sunscreen is enough to protect you…it isn’t.

How to Avoid Sunburn

The easiest way to avoid sunburn and sun damage is not to go outside. As that’s not practical or fun for most, the next best thing is to not bask in the sun, especially without a liberal application of sunscreen BEFORE you leave the house.

This list is the absolute gospel of protecting your skin from the sun and the resulting sunburn many people endure when they don’t have to suffer:

  • Liberally apply a broad spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater to all areas of exposed skin at least 15 minutes before heading outside. “Liberal” means you can see a fairly thick layer of sunscreen that you then massage into skin.
  • If you’ll be swimming or perspiring heavily, apply a water-resistant sunscreen. You must reapply it as they don’t last very long when you’re wet. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant” will last 40 minutes when you’re wet; sunscreens labeled “very water resistant” will last for 80 minutes. We know that isn’t the best news, but it’s the best way to take care of your skin.
  • Follow the SPF number rating to determine how long the protection will last. To do this, you need an idea of how many minutes it takes your skin to turn color without sun protection. For most people with fair skin, that’s 10-15 minutes. So, for SPF 30, you’d multiply that number  by the number of minutes it takes to see a color change in our skin without SPF.
  • If you’ll be outdoors in direct sunlight the recommendation from the FDA is reapply sunscreen every two hours. We know that’s not practical for lots of people but do the best you can. Your skin will thank you for it.
  • Protect your scalp and, to some extent, your face and neck by wearing a broad-brimmed hat; a baseball cap is helpful but leaves your neck at risk.
  • We wish everyone would wear UV-rated clothing for long days out in the sun, especially at the beach. We know wanting to wear practically nothing is far more stylish, sexy, and comfortable but for your skin it’s anything but vogue, it’s damaging. It’s hard to keep enough sunscreen on your entire body without spending a fortune. Covering large sections of your body with UV rated clothing from brands like Coolibar, Solumbra, and UVSkinz is a spectacular way to protect your skin especially when you’re swimming-and ideal for those who don’t like the feel of sunscreen from head to toe.
  • Wear UV-rated sunglasses to shield the skin around your eyes and the eyes themselves. Just ask any ophthalmologist about the long term damage to your eyes from not regularly wearing sunglasses!
  • Try to avoid being in the sun during peak hours when UV light is most intense, typically between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm.
  • Seek shade whenever possible; basking in the sun is never a good idea, though we know this is the hardest advice to follow because being in the sun can feel so great.
  • Get inside as quickly as possible if you see your skin turning pink, even if you reapply sunscreen.
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen on commonly-missed areas prone to sunburn: Tops of ears and bare feet, the part in your hair, the back of your neck, and the top of your hands.

Skincare Ingredients and Sun Sensitivity

Sun sensitivity (also known as photosensitivity) means that the skin is sensitive to any kind of sun exposure. Surprisingly, this can also be caused by skincare products that contain plant extracts that can make sun damage worse.

Having skin that’s photosensitive means you’re more likely to get sunburn, so it's extra important to follow all of the tips above. Check your skincare products for these ingredients, some of which can be sensitizing no matter how your skin reacts in the sun:

  • St. John's wort
  • Some fragrance ingredients, such as coumarin and limonene
  • Citrus oils, such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, and bergamot
  • Lavender oil
  • Rosemary oil
  • Sandalwood oil
  • Plants belonging to the Umbelliferae family, which includes parsley, carrot, dill, angelica, anise, fennel, and Centella asiatica
  • Glycolic or lactic acids (AHAs)
  • Benzoyl peroxide

Learn From Your Burn

One sunburn a year might not seem very serious, but the research is clear: Repeated unprotected sun exposure, getting sunburned, or repeatedly getting tan not only causes early skin aging, but also causes further damage that affects skin’s appearance in ways you ultimately won’t like when you look in the mirror.

With the right sunscreen, sun-protective clothing, and following our other recommendations, you can avoid the misery of sunburn—and significantly reduce your risk of seeing advanced signs of aging, including wrinkles, leathery skin texture, and dramatically uneven skin tone.

Learn more about what the sun is doing to your skin and how you can prevent it. See our sunscreen infographic.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life!

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life!

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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