8 Sun Protection Mistakes You're Making in Your 20s

Potentially lasting effects on your skin and ways to fix them

You take good care of your skin. You've got a consistent cleanse-exfoliate-moisturize regimen and you know that sun protection is key to guard against premature aging and skin cancer.

But could you be unwittingly making these sun protection mistakes? Do these now and they can have lasting effects on your skin.

If you’re guilty of some of these, even if you’re not in your 20s anymore, no worries. It's never too late to stop. And there are things you can do to help reverse sun damage that may have already occurred.

1
Thinking the SPF in Your Makeup Is Enough

woman applying moisturizer
Peopleimages/iStockphoto

Many makeup products, like foundation, concealer, and face powders, contain SPF. This tricks us into believing that we're covered when, in all reality, you're not getting the sun protection you need from makeup alone.

Sure, it may have an SPF 30, but you're not getting anywhere near that amount of protection. To be effective, and give you the SPF your skin needs, you'd have to apply an incredibly thick layer of powder or foundation. No one applies near this much; it would look unnatural.

Don't rely on makeup alone for your sun protection. Instead, get a good facial sunscreen or a moisturizer with SPF 30 or higher. Yes, unlike makeup, moisturizers with SPF do work.

Apply your sunscreen and allow it to soak in for a good 10 minutes before applying your makeup. Consider makeup with SPF a little boost to your regular sun protection routine, not the sole source of SPF.

Lip products, like balms and lipsticks, are an exception to this rule, though, because you're generally reapplying them throughout the day.

2
Skipping the Sunscreen When It's Cloudy

You're probably not thinking about sun protection when it's cold and grey outside. But the American Academy of Dermatology recommends you wear sunscreen year-round, even when it's cold and cloudy.

UVB rays are the rays that cause sunburn (remember it this way: the B in UVB stands for "burn"). UVB rays are filtered through the clouds, so not as many reach the earth, and therefore your skin, on super overcast and cloudy days.

These rays are also at their strongest when the sun is directly overhead, say mid-day on a summer afternoon. During the wintertime, when the sun stays lower in the sky, UVB rays aren't as strong.

UVA rays, on the other hand, aren't filtered though the clouds. At least, not much. Nearly as many are reaching your skin on cloudy days as on bright sunny ones. The amount of UVA rays are also more steady year-round.

UVA rays don't cause sunburn. These are the rays that are chiefly responsible for photoaging (remember A for "aging"). Even though you won't burn as easily or at all during a cool, cloudy, overcast day, sun damage can still be occurring. It just won't show up on your skin until later, as premature wrinkles, dark spots, and a course skin texture.

So slathering up all year long, even on those days you wouldn't typically think of needing sunscreen, will protect your skin long-term.

3
Applying Sunscreen to Your Face Only

OK, let's be honest. It's not just the threat of skin cancer that gets you applying your SPF every morning. The anti-aging benefits are also appealing. And when we think anti-aging we think face. This mindset may cause us to forget some of those other areas that need some love.

Sunscreen should also be applied daily to your neck (both front and back), chest, and exposed arms and shoulders. Also, don't skip these oft-forgotten areas: the ears and the backs of your hands. The hands especially are always exposed. Get in the habit of applying sunscreen to your hands now, and you'll notice less aging and hyperpigmentation later.

You'll need a generous quarter-sized dollop to cover your face, neck, chest, and ears.

4
Thinking Your Clothing Protects You From the Sun

We typically think if our skin is covered, we're safe. But that's not necessarily true. Did you know some clothing only gives an SPF of about 2? Your typical t-shirt gives an SPF 6. This is a far cry below the recommended SPF 30.

The UV protection you get from your clothing depends on how thick the fabric is and how open the weave. A thin t-shirt will give less protection than a thicker denim one, for example.

Light-weight summery clothing won't do much to protect your skin from UV rays. So, if you're going to be outside for any length of time, you'll also want to apply sunscreen to the skin under your clothing.

Another option is to buy sun protective clothing. These pieces are tested and given a UPF rating, or ultraviolet protective factor rating. It's like SPF but for clothes. These help shield your skin from the sun and are especially good options for beachwear, hiking shirts, or your go-to outdoorsy outfit.

5
Not Reapplying

That sunscreen you apply in the morning won't last all day. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every two hours when you’re out. More often if you're swimming or sweating.

And make sure you're applying enough. To cover your entire body you should use about one ounce of sunscreen. For a visual, that's approximately the amount of sunscreen that would fill a shot glass. If you're not a drinker and have no idea how large a shot glass is, it's the equivalent to two tablespoons.

Mineral powder sunscreens are a great option for your face, too. They can be applied right over the top of your makeup so you can reapply your SPF without having to redo your face.

6
Getting a "Base" Tan

At the start of every summer, or right before vacation at a sunny locale, many people head to the tanning salon. Getting a good base tan will keep you from burning and protect your skin, right? Unfortunately, no.

Tan skin equals damaged skin, it's that simple. When the skin is assaulted by UV rays, special cells called melanocytes try to protect it from further damage by creating melanin. Melanin is what gives our skin, hair, and eyes their color. It's also what causes are skin to turn brown in the sun.

A tan is a sign that cell DNA has been damaged. So getting a base tan isn't protecting your skin from damage down the road, it's causing damage to your skin right now. And, contrary to what the really nice person at the tanning salon tells you, tanning beds don't give you a safe tan. There is no such thing as a skin-safe tan. The best way to protect your skin from sunburn is, you guessed it, sunscreen!

7
Thinking Skin Damage Only Happens With a Sunburn

If you have the type of skin that never burns, you may think you don't need sunscreen. But sun damage can occur even without a sunburn.

Sunburn happens on the surface of your skin, where it's obvious and easily seen. Much more damage can be happening below the surface of the skin, though, where you can't see it.

UVB rays are the rays that cause sunburn. They penetrate the topmost layer of the skin called the epidermis. UVA rays penetrate much deeper than UVB rays, into the dermis. These rays can cause collagen to break down, leading to premature wrinkling and sagging.

UVA rays are also chiefly responsible for creating free radicals. These unstable oxygen molecules steal electrons from cells in your skin, damaging them and leading to aging. Exposure to both UVA and UVB also raises your risk of developing skin cancer. Whether you are sunburned or not is irrelevant, sun damage can still be occurring. The takeaway is this: everyone needs sunscreen, even if you don't burn.

8
Not Using Antioxidants With Your Sunscreen

Want your sunscreen to be even more effective? There's some indication that using sunscreen along with antioxidants boosts the anti-aging effects of your product.

Let's go back to free radicals for a minute. Free radicals are caused by many things, including smoking, air pollution, and UV radiation. Free radicals are also created as a by-product as your sunscreen absorbs UV light. (Still, the overall assault by free radicals on your skin is less when wearing sunscreen than without.)

But you can give your skin added protection against free radical damage by using antioxidants. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals by giving them the extra electron they're trying to steal from your skin. Cell damage thwarted!

So, what ingredients specifically are you looking for? Vitamins E and C, Reservatol, green tea, coffee berry, and grapeseed extracts are all antioxidant ingredients. Some skin care pros think that antioxidants aren't as effective when blended into sunscreen. They suggest using an antioxidant serum underneath your sunscreen instead.

A Word From Verywell

Don't fret too much if you've made some of these sun protection mistakes—we all have at some point (sometimes even when we know better.) Since sun damage is cumulative, it's never to late to adopt healthier sun protection habits.

And we're learning more every day about how to best protect our skin from the sun. Although it can seem complicated, it can all be boiled down to this: apply sunscreen, of at least SPF 30, to all exposed areas of the skin every single day. Just that simple step will go a long way toward keeping your skin healthy and sun safe.

Sources:

Global Solar UV Index. World Health Organization.

Marionnet C, Tricaud C, Bernerd F. "Exposure to Non-extreme Solar UV Daylight: Spectral Characterization, Effects on Skin and Photoprotection." International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2014 Dec 23;16(1):68-90.

Skotarczak K, Osmola-Mańkowska A, Lodyga M, Polańska A, Mazur M, Adamski Z. "Photoprotection: Facts and Controversies." European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. 2015 Jan;19(1):98-112.

Souza C, Maia Campos P, Schanzer S, Albrecht S, Lohan SB, et. al. "Radical-Scavenging Activity of a Sunscreen Enriched by Antioxidants Providing Protection in the Whole Solar Spectral Range." Skin Pharmacology and Physiology. 2017 Mar 21;30(2):81-89.

What Is Sun-Safe Clothing?  SkinCancer.org. Skin Cancer Foundation.

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