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6 Reasons Why Your Sunscreen Isn’t Working

Is your sunscreen doing its job? Read on to find out why your sunscreen might not be working as well as it should, plus tips from skin care professionals to keep you protected.

You already know you’re supposed to wear sunscreen every day, and you probably even a have bottle or two ready to deploy. For some reason, though, your sunscreen just isn’t working the way it ought to. Maybe you’re dealing with burns despite a morning application, or splotchy coverage as evidenced by the weird burn marks that show up hours after hanging out in the sun. With expert help, we’re breaking down the common reasons why your sunscreen isn’t working and how to remedy the issue.  

You’re Applying Sunscreen After You’ve Already Been in the Sun

If you’re using a chemical-based sunscreen versus a physical sunscreen, you must apply your sunscreen a full 15 to 20 minutes before any exposure. Chemical sunscreens work by being absorbed into the surface-layers of your skin, so they need some time to sink in. If you’re not sure which type you have, check the packaging. You can also look at the ingredient list. Active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone while physical sunscreens typically contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.

You’re Not Using Enough Sunscreen

You may be applying sunscreen, but it’s entirely possible you’re not applying enough sunscreen. 

“Many people do not use nearly enough sunscreen to be effective. In fact, approximately 25 to 50 percent of people don’t use the proper amount,” says Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, a celebrity dermatologist and spokesperson for Olay. “It is not enough to spot treat your nose or cheeks. You need to use the proper amount all over from head to toe.” 

If you’re using a cream or lotion, allocate a nickel-sized amount to your face. The rest of your body requires an entire shot-glass full. If you’re using a spray, don’t hold back. Every inch should be liberally coated, and you’ll need to rub it in with your hands.

You Forgot to Reapply

Another major sunscreen mistake people make is forgetting to reapply. One coat in the morning isn’t going to last all day, so re-upping is key to protecting yourself from those damaging UV rays. 

Unfortunately, sunscreen eventually wears off after several hours. It may last less time if you’re sweating, and even less if you go in the pool or the ocean,” says Dr. John Diaz, a plastic surgeon and the co-founder of Honor MD. “Even ‘waterproof’ sunscreen wears off after you get wet. This is a big problem during the summer or on vacation. What you need to do is to reapply the sunscreen every two to three hours, especially if you’re laying out in the sun or get in the pool.”  

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You’re Forgetting Easy-to-Miss Spots

“Many people remember to cover the face, arms, chest and legs, however, the scalp, ears, lips, hands and feet are frequently forgotten. These areas are highly prone to skin cancers over many years of sun exposure,” says Dr. Nussbaum. 

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Do You Really Need Sunscreen For Your Scalp?

When applying your SPF, make a conscientious effort to also apply to these oft-forgotten spots. You can even create a checklist and post it to your door, or sing the song “head, shoulders, knees, and toes.” No shame! For your lips, keep a tube of SPF-loaded balm in your bag. 

Your Sunscreen Has Expired

It may be tempting to reach for a dusty bottle of sunscreen instead of spending the cash on a new tube but trust us when we say buying a fresh product is 100% worth it. Also, when you’re at the store double check the expiration date on anything you buy because it could be old inventory.

“It is very common for people to use an old, expired sunscreen they had in their cabinet from the previous summer. Another challenge is that sometimes stores don’t always keep their inventory up to date,” says Dr. Diaz. “The problem is that the active ingredients in sunscreen are sensitive and deteriorate over time. If the sunscreen is expired, it just won’t work as well.”

If you’re using sunscreen as frequently as you ought to, it’ll probably run out before it even gets close to expiration. Make that your goal!

Your Sunscreen Isn’t Up to Snuff

In the same way not all face creams live up to their promises, some sunscreen products just aren’t as high quality as others. 

“Not all sunscreens are created equal,” says Heidi Mullen, DO, a medical dermatology resident at Affiliated Dermatology. “Make sure your sunscreen is a broad-spectrum sunscreen, protecting your skin from both UVA and UVB sunrays. Also, look for an SPF of 30 or higher, which will protect you from 97% of the sun’s harmful UVB rays.” 

A quality sunscreen that’s applied daily — and throughout the day — is absolutely worth your time and money. Making a deliberate choice to commit to this skincare step not only reduces your risk of skin cancer by 25%, but it has the added benefit of reducing signs of premature aging. You know what we call that? A super win-win. 

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