(Sun Care)

Your Top 10 *Burning* Sun Care Questions, Answered

From SPF formulation to treating existing damage.

Women at the beach in the sun

If it seems like you blinked and all of a sudden it’s summer, you’re not alone—from coast to coast, people who have been cooped up for months on end are finally able to close their laptops and walk out of the house for a much-deserved vacation. But just because you’re able to leave those emails and meetings behind for a few days or weeks doesn’t mean you should totally throw out everything you know about safe sun care practices. Because as oh-so-satisfying as it is to lounge on the beach or by the pool this season, UV rays are still lying in wait to fry your skin if you’re not careful. And while most people already know that daily SPF is a must to keep your skin protected and minimize signs of premature aging (right?) there are a few nuances to preventing and treating sun damage—even how and when to apply sunscreen can get a little confusing.

But don’t worry—several leading dermatologists are here to answer your top 10 *burning* questions about sun care, including how to ensure that your summer is filled with (nearly) care-free visits with friends at your dream vacation destinations, and not, instead, spent nursing an unfortunate sun burn or trying to get rid of another pesky dark spot. Here are what the skin care pros had to say about sun safety this summer—and all year long.

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1. Do I Need To Apply Sunscreen Even If It’s Not Sunny Outside?

Any skin expert will answer this question with an emphatic, yes. Even if it’s a rainy, cloudy, gloomy day, SPF is necessary to protect your skin against the UV rays that can still damage your skin. Says Dr. Angela Lamb, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, “Clouds only cover a small percentage for the sun’s UVA/UVB rays. It is critical to make sure to continue [applying sunscreen even] when you are in the cold and when it is overcast. This is how many patients end up getting burned.”

Dr. Fatima Fahs, MD FAAD, adds that, “Just because we can’t ‘feel’ strong sun rays doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Even on cloudy days, you can still get a sunburn and sun damage. Eighty percent of UV rays pass right through the clouds.” Essentially, if there is daylight, you need to use sunscreen to keep your skin protected from burns, dark spots, and premature fine lines and wrinkles. Add in SPF as the final step in your skin care routine (after your various serums and moisturizer) and it will soon be a daily habit.

2. How Much Sunscreen Is Enough For My Face & Neck?

There are a couple of ways to determine the proper amount of sunscreen that you need each morning, but Dr. Jenny Liu, board-certified dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, recommends one teaspoon to start.

This might feel like a lot of product, especially when you compare it to the amount you use for a face cream or toner, but the reason it’s so important to use an adequate amount is to get the full sun protection factor (SPF) of the formula. Says Dr. Fahs, “To achieve the SPF indicated on your bottle of sunscreen, you have to use approximately 2 milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin.” Rather than do a ton of mental math in your head, she suggests a nickel-sized dollop for the face and a quarter sized dollop to the face and neck. So to make sure your SPF 30 is, you know, actually providing a sun protection factor of 30, use plenty of sunscreen—this is not the time to skimp.

3. Do Makeup Products With Added SPF Have Enough Protection To Forgo Sunscreen?

The answer to this isn’t a simple “yes” or “no”, as it really depends on the makeup formulation itself. First, you’ll need to apply a product that includes broad-spectrum protection (which targets both UVA and UVB rays). You’ll be able to find out whether or not your makeup has that on the label. Second, you need to apply enough makeup to offer proper protection. Says Dr. Liu, “Most people don't apply enough [nor do they] need that much makeup. Also many makeup [products] don't provide the broad-spectrum filters that are in sunscreen.”

So if you don’t want to apply a nickel-sized amount of foundation to your face, or you don’t have (or don’t know) if your makeup has broad-spectrum protection, it’s better to be safe and use a separate sunscreen under your makeup.

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4. What Is The Highest SPF That I Need To Wear?

Again, there is a lot of conflicting information here, but most derms (including the ones interviewed here) recommend an SPF 30 as the bare minimum. However, Dr. Fahs says that, “Higher SPF doesn’t necessarily mean better.”

She goes on to explain that the sun protection factor is a measure of how long you can stay in the sun before UVB rays will burn your skin. So, for example, if your skin starts to get red within 15 minutes of being in the sun, an SPF of 30 will theoretically allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer without getting burned. (That doesn’t account for sweating, swimming, or wiping off your skin, however).

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an SPF of 15 blocks 93% of UV rays; an SPF of 30 blocks 97%; and an SPF of 50 blocks 98% of UV rays. “Technically, a SPF higher than 50 is negligible in terms of UV blockage since no sunscreen blocks 100% of UV rays,” says Dr. Fahs. “The problem is [that] most people apply less than half of the amount they are supposed to, translating into reduced protection. So I recommend an SPF of 30 at minimum and to reach for something higher if heading to the beach or outdoors for extended periods.”

5. Do I Really Need To Reapply Sunscreen, & How Often?

Sunscreen is not a one-and-done situation—prolonging that sun protection does require reapplication (even on days when you’re not at the beach or pool). Dr. Lamb recommends reapplying every 80-90 minutes, but again, if you’re doing an activity that involves copious sweating, or getting in and out of water, you’ll need to reapply much more frequently. “We know that sunscreens can also lose effectiveness with use, so no matter the number, you should reapply every two hours,” adds Dr. Fahs.

6. How Do I Reapply Sunscreen Without Ruining My Makeup?

So you’re not spending a day outside but are simply sitting at your desk, near a window, and want to be diligent about your sunscreen usage—firstly, all the brownie points for you. Second, the dermatologists all recommend a powder formula to brush on extra SPF. Dr. Lamb also cites a spray as a quick, easy way to add another layer of SPF protection, while Dr. Liu prefers to reapply a beloved SPF with a beauty sponge, gently tapping the formula into the skin so you don’t disturb your makeup. A sunscreen compact in either a clear or tinted formula can also help you to reapply with minimal effort or effect on your face beat.

7. How Do I Treat A Sunburn On My Face And Minimize The Damage?

Sometimes you think you do everything right, but the day just gets away from you (understandable after the last 15 months) and you still end up with a painful sunburn, which, if it’s on your face, can feel especially tricky to treat. After first getting out of the sun and cooling down, to treat a burn Dr. Liu recommends, “A good moisturizer with soothing ingredients like oat or niacinamide, petrolatum if needed, and seeing a dermatologist for prescription meds if [the burn is] severe.”

She also stresses that if you do have a sunburn, you have to stop using any skin care products that contain ingredients that could further inflame your skin, like AHAs, BHAs, vitamin C, and/or retinoids. Your skin is already damaged and stressed, so stick with gentle products (fragrance-free options are also a good idea) to ensure that your skin can heal as quickly as possible.

Dr. Fahs adds that you can “moisturize with an aloe or soy-based product,” if you have burned skin. “If [the skin is] blistering, avoid popping the blister and do not pull any peeling skin to avoid causing hyperpigmentation.” Again, be as gentle as possible and allow your skin to repair itself.


8. What Are The Best Sunscreens For Sensitive Or Acne-Prone Skin?

You might equate using face sunscreen with a thick glob of white cream that clogs your pores and leaves you feeling itchy or sticky. Luckily, sun care innovations have come a long way in the past few decades, and there are plenty of options for anyone with sensitive or acne-prone skin.

All of the dermatologists recommend using a physical or mineral sunscreen over a chemical option (more on that in a bit), which contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, rather than a formula that uses oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.

Says Dr. Fahs, “Some people do have an allergy to certain chemical sunscreen ingredients, so physical sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation. For acne-prone skin, look for a mattifying sunscreen or combination sunscreen and oil-free moisturizer.” She adds that some sunscreens have added ingredients like niacinamide to help with acne and redness. Washing your face at the end of the day to remove every trace of sunscreen will also help to keep your pores clear and to minimize any congestion.

9. What Is The Difference Between Chemical & Physical Sunscreen?

As you saw from the list of ingredients above, a chemical SPF uses a whole host of (you guessed it) chemicals to protect you against a sunburn, while a physical or mineral formula uses either titanium dioxide or zinc (sometimes both). But the way that these ingredients interact with the UV rays are extremely different. Says Dr. Lamb, “The physical [ingredients] literally block the sun, [while] the chemical allows penetration and then a chemical reaction to diffuse the rays.” So if you hear the phrase “sun block” that generally refers to a physical SPF (although colloquially you may hear it used for any SPF).

The chemical reaction that happens with a chemical sunscreen is safe and doesn’t harm your skin—it disperses the energy throughout your body as heat. However, if you have melasma (which can be triggered by heat) you will not be protected from those dark patches forming with any SPF besides a physical formula. But if you haven’t had any luck finding a sunscreen that sits nicely underneath makeup, it might be worth exploring a few chemical options as they generally blend in more seamlessly, and they won’t leave behind any white cast (which is tough to avoid with a zinc SPF, unless it is tinted).

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As for the controversy that sometimes surrounds chemical SPF, Dr. Fahs adds that, “Contrary to popular belief, all sunscreens are technically chemically derived. And even though physical sunscreens are touted as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’, in the lab, they are actually referred to as inorganic compounds. On the other hand, chemical sunscreen filters are actually referred to as organic filters.” There are two ingredients that the FDA finds are not GRASE, or “generally recognized as safe and effective”: PABA and tolamine salicylate. But don’t worry—you won’t be able to buy sunscreens with these ingredients in the United States.

At the end of the day, all derms and skin care experts will agree that the best SPF is the one that you are willing to wear on a daily basis.

10. If I Have Dark Spots & Sun Damage, What Can I Do To Fade The Marks?

Dark spots happen, as much as we try to avoid them, from a combination of prolonged sun exposure, not using enough SPF, forgetting to reapply, hormones—it’s an ongoing battle to keep your complexion and tone as even as possible. First and foremost: Keep all of these sun care tips in mind on a daily basis. Prevention is always easier than repairing the damage after it occurs.

All of the dermatologists recommend seeing a professional for an annual skin check to confirm that any dark spots you’re seeing aren’t cancerous. They’ll also be able to help determine whether it’s post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, sun damage, melasma, et cetera, and the best course of action to treat the marks. There are also some in-office procedures, like lasers and microneedling, that can help to minimize unwanted pigmentation.

For over-the-counter options, Dr. Fahs recommends looking for products that contain the following ingredients: retinol, kojic acid, vitamin C, licorice root, niacinamide, azelaic acid, and tranexamic acid. These help to speed up skin cell turnover (revealing new, brighter skin underneath the dark mark) and protect against free-radical damage from UV rays. Just remember, don’t go overboard with trying a million different new products all at once—your skin might freak out and you can actually make the pigmentation worse.

As with anything in skin care, consistency is key (much more so than trying everything new on the market), so stick with a preventative sun care routine, spot treat damage as you see it, and visit your dermatologist at least once a year to make sure your skin is healthy. Consider yourself a bonafide sun care expert this summer.