How much do you need to spend on sunblock?



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published June 27, 2018 | 4 min read

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The weirdest thing about 1999 is undoubtedly the fact that the Baz Luhrmann-produced spoken-word single "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) reached No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100, topping artists like Third Eye Blind and Jay-Z. If you haven't heard it, it's basically five minutes of earnest life advice like "Don't worry about the future," and, "Keep your old love letters," delivered over mellow new-agey music.

The only concrete advice is in the title: Wear sunscreen. Most of us don't, at least not as much as we should. (People think of sunscreen as one of the many hidden summer expenses, but you don't only need it three months of the year.)

How much should we wear? What do we look for when we're buying sunscreen? Do we need to buy the priciest stuff to stay protected? If only "Everybody's Free" had covered its main subject a little more thoroughly. We're here to fill in the gaps.

How to use sunscreen

This should be simple. Squeeze some out, apply to skin. Repeat if necessary.

But the amount people use is often arbitrary and insufficient. Dermatologists recommend applying about a shot glass of sunscreen to your body and a teaspoon to your face, ears and neck.

"In the real world, most of us don't use that much," said Dr. Ivy Lee, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California.

Apply 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours. You should reapply more frequently if you're going in and out of water, Lee said.

This general advice can be difficult to practice daily, Lee said. If you're indoors most of the day, reapplying once around lunchtime should suffice. But if you're exercising or sweating, stick to a two-hour routine.

You should wear sunscreen on your face, neck, ears and hands daily as part of your skincare regimen, Lee said.

If you go to the beach for a week, you should expect to go through about two bottles of sunscreen if you're using it correctly, said Dr. Laura Ferris, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh. Most people use only about half as much as they should, which only offers half as much protection. So if you buy sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 50 but only use half as much as you should, you're effectively getting an SPF of only 25. (Keep this in mind, the next time you visit one of the best beaches in the U.S.)

Sunblock degrades as it blocks ultraviolet light, Ferris said. If you don't reapply, you could end up with no sun protection.

How to buy sunscreen

You don't need a fancy brand name. Just look out for a few things on the label: the SPF, broad spectrum protection (meaning it protects against both kinds of ultraviolet rays), and if you're swimming, water resistance. While the standard recommendation is an SPF of at least 30, Ferris tells her patients to go for 50 or higher.

A higher SPF offers more protection and doesn't cost much more, Ferris said. Wirecutter, a review website, researched dozens of sunscreens and sprays to recommend a handful of inexpensive choices, including $10 Coppertone sun lotion with an SPF of 70.

"Maybe more money will get you a more cosmetically elegant feel but that's about it," Ferris said. "You're not going to get more sun protection for more money."

Still have some sunscreen from last summer? Toss it out. Sunscreen breaks down over time, especially in extreme temperatures, so get rid of the year-old bottle in your car.

Sunscreen comes in a variety of formulations, from sprays to lotions to creams. Creams and lotions tend to offer the best coverage, while powders or sprays tend to be more uneven.

You may have heard that Hawaii passed a bill banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals found to harm coral. There are plenty of options that don't contain these chemicals. Look for inorganic sunscreens, whose active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium oxide. These are also effective for people who get a rash from wearing sunscreen, Ferris said.

Other ways to protect yourself

You can cut down on your sunscreen budget by taking other protective measures. The cheapest thing to do is seek out shade, Lee said. Also wear broad-rimmed hats, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing. Regular clothing that has a tighter weave and darker colors can also protect you from ultraviolet rays.

Longer days can mean more sunscreen. Get ready for all the ways summer can mess with your budget.

Image: paultarasenko