How to Apply Sunscreen


It seems simple, right? Apply sunscreen to exposed skin before you go outside and you’re done. But it isn’t that simple, because the when, where, and how you apply sunscreen is really important, and often confusing. You need to know how much to apply, when to apply it, and then when to reapply, which is especially important after swimming or perspiring.

We’ve examined all the latest research and have definitive answers to your most burning sunscreen questions, so you can keep your skin perfectly protected and looking younger, longer!

Why Sunscreen Is So Important

Nothing is as imperative for keeping skin truly younger-looking, protected, and resilient as daily use of a sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. This is something Paula’s Choice Skincare has embraced with every sunscreen we’ve created. If your skin is exposed to daylight, even indirectly (in the shade of a tree or through windows), it needs sunscreen to reduce the risk of premature aging and skin cancer.

BUT: If you don’t know how to apply sunscreen correctly, you won’t get the protection of the SPF number on the label. You may be using an SPF 30 sunscreen, but if you don’t apply enough or if you don’t reapply as directed, you may be getting protection of only an SPF 20, SPF 10, or even lower! That is dangerous for your skin, and we want you to know how to avoid it.

What Step is Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine?

The vast majority of medical experts, regulatory boards, and scientists around the world agree: Sunscreen is always, always, the final step in your daytime skincare routine. This is exactly how sunscreens are tested to achieve their SPF rating: Nothing goes over the sunscreen, this is how you must apply sunscreen to get the best SPF protection possible. Any skincare product you apply over a sunscreen dilutes the sunscreen and reduces its effectiveness.

Do you also need a moisturizer for under your sunscreen? Probably not. The best facial sunscreens, in addition to providing broad-spectrum protection, also have sophisticated anti-aging and hydrating formulas. Therefore, you shouldn’t need a second product if the one you’ve chosen is rated SPF 30 or greater, is suitable for your skin type, and is loaded with potent antioxidants and other skin-renewing ingredients. Ideally, it should also be fragrance free because fragrance, whether natural or synthetic, isn’t a friend to anyone’s skin.

Regarding antioxidants, there is some research showing that you can get an extra skin-rejuvenating boost by applying an antioxidant-rich serum before your sunscreen. Antioxidants help further shield skin from the environmental assault that slowly chips away at skin’s youthful appearance, and they work brilliantly in combination with sunscreens.

How Soon to Apply Sunscreen Before Heading Outside?

When to apply sunscreen? Without a shred of doubt, you must apply it before you leave the house. Waiting until you get to where you’re going exposes your skin to an incredible amount of damage before you arrive. What might be really shocking to you (it was to us) is that research has shown that sun damage begins the first minute your unprotected skin sees daylight—not sunlight, but daylight!

It’s best to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside and to be sure you let it absorb before you get dressed. Research has shown that if you get dressed immediately after applying sunscreen, much of the sunscreen rubs off on your clothing. That’s not good, because for sunscreen to do its job, it needs to be on your skin, not on your clothes.

How Much Sunscreen to Apply

The common direction is to apply sunscreen “liberally,” but exactly what does “liberal application” really mean? You’ll find all kinds of mathematical measurement recommendations (1/2 teaspoon for your face, a shot glass full for your body), but they don’t really make sense. Why? Because not everyone has the same size body or face and not everyone has the same amount of skin exposed to daylight.

The best way to be sure you’re applying enough sunscreen is to spread a layer you can see over the areas of your skin that will be exposed to daylight, and then massage it into the skin. To be extra safe, especially if you’re planning a long day outside, apply another slightly thinner layer, and you will truly be covered until it’s time to reapply.

When to Reapply Sunscreen?

Most dermatologists and regulatory boards recommend reapplying sunscreen every two hours. This recommendation is different from the recommendation for reapplying water-resistant sunscreens after swimming or sweating.

The issue of reapplication is about being outside in direct light, no shade. If you apply sunscreen in the morning and spend most of your day inside (without your skin getting wet or perspiring heavily), your sunscreen should still be effective by the end of the day. This is because sunscreen actives break down in response to direct exposure to daylight, not just from the passage of time. So, on an average day, your morning application of sunscreen is still going to provide some sun protection on your way home, if you’ve spent most of the day indoors.

But, and this is a big but, this is based on the assumption that you applied liberally in the morning! The “reapply every two hours” recommendation is based primarily on the fact that most people don’t apply sunscreen liberally enough. Therefore, the logic is that reapplying sunscreen every two hours leads eventually to a liberal application, resulting in better and longer sun protection. But, if you apply liberally from the start, this recommendation might not pertain to you.

One additional sun protection tip: To prevent signs of aging on your hands, you must reapply sunscreen every time you wash your hands because soap and water remove a significant amount of sunscreen, whether it’s a regular or water-resistant sunscreen. It’s a good idea to keep a small container of sunscreen with you at all times (Paula never goes anywhere without sunscreen in her purse).

Do I Need Sunscreen If I’m Inside All Day?

Yes, you do! The UVA rays of daylight that are present year-round come through windows. As we mentioned, sun damage begins the very first minute your skin sees daylight, no matter if it’s cloudy or sunny. If you think that just walking to your car and then into a store or office won’t damage your skin, think again; that few minutes of UV light exposure adds up over the years, and will cause your skin to age faster than you want.

Applying Makeup Over Sunscreen

We’re often asked whether or not applying foundation that does not contain sunscreen over the sunscreen you’ve just applied will diminish the sunscreen’s ability to protect skin. It won’t, if you follow these guidelines:

  • Wait 3–5 minutes for the sunscreen to set before applying foundation.
  • Make sure you apply the foundation in smooth, downward motions, no rubbing back and forth.
  • Do not use excess pressure and do not over-blend.
  • The goal is to glide foundation over the skin, not to rub it into skin.
  • It’s even better when your foundation, BB cream, or tinted moisturizer contains sunscreen too—we love to layer sunscreen!

What about relying on foundation with sunscreen on its own? That’s a fine way to get protection for your face if you apply liberally. If you don’t like that much coverage or how it feels when you apply foundation liberally, then this method won’t give you optimum protection; so, you should liberally apply a facial moisturizer with sunscreen and then follow with your makeup.

A note on powders with sunscreen: You should not rely on pressed or loose powders with sunscreen as your only sun protection. It’s the rare person who would willingly apply powder liberally enough to get the amount of SPF protection indicated on the label (getting to that point requires a lot of thick powder sitting on top of your skin). Powders with sunscreen are a great way to touch up your makeup during the day, and for applying more protection at the same time!

References for this information:

Science, February 2015, pages 842-847
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, April-June 2014, pages 96-101
Annals of Internal Medicine, June 2013, pages 781-790
Cutis, December 2012, pages 321-326.
Clinical Experimental Dermatology, December 2012, pages 904-908
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, February 2010, pages 218-222
British Journal of Dermatology, February 2010, pages 415-419
Photochemistry and Photobiology, April 2003, pages 453-457
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, December 2001, pages 882–885

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!

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