The 6 most common sunscreen mistakes

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Woman applying sunblock protection on shoulders

HARTFORD – With the beautiful summer weather and all of the outdoor activities that are planned, it is easy to get a sunburn.  We all know sunscreen can prevent sunburns but here are six of the most common mistakes people make resulting in a sunburn:

  1. They use an SPF below 15.
  2. They don’t protect against UVA and UVB rays.  Old sunscreen does not provide broad-spectrum protection.
  3. They use old sunscreen. If it from 1986, its time to throw it out.
  4. They don’t reapply every three to four hours. Even if it is water-resistant and you don’t think you are sweating, sunscreen wears off over time.
  5. They miss a spot.
  6. Finally, they overestimate the SPF power of clouds.  Remember a cloud only has an SPF of 2 or 3 and clouds can burn off and leave you unprotected They underestimate the power of direct summer sunlight.  In the summer between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., you need sunscreen if you are going to be directly sun exposed for more than 10 to 15 minutes.

So what should you do today before the summer gets rolling?

Check your sunscreen stock and make sure it is SPF15 or greater, it has broad-spectrum UV coverage, and is not expired.  Apply the sunscreen carefully to ensure that you hit all the spots that will be sun exposed including the earlobes. Having a friend do your back is a great way to build community and it prevents that one strip of burn from appearing. Reapplying every 3 to 4 hours at the latest if you are still in the sun. Wear a hat and lip balm to protect spots where sunscreen cannot go and UV-protecting sunglasses is valuable. The top of the shoulders and neck are a high-risk area because they get more direct sunlight; so add a shirt or towel to ramp up the sun protection in that risk area.

If you didn’t heed this advice and now you or your loved one has a burn, what can you do?

While sun exposure increases vitamin D levels and can be a healthy thing, sunburns are risky and do increase the risk of not only sunburns but premature wrinkling and skin cancer. Nothing you do will lessen the damage that already occurred, it just has to run its course but there are ways to make the symptoms better.  Take a cool shower or bath and apply moisturizer to make it less painful.  Some people find aloe vera containing moisturizer especially soothing but the jury is still out on whether it better than regular moisturizers.  If this is not enough to help the irritation and pain, taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen a couple times a day for a few days and use hydrocortisone cream or anesthetic cream before bed to help you get to sleep.  Finally, if the peeling is making you insanely itchy, moisturizuring and using an antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) before bed can really help.

Most sunburns are red, sore to the touch, and peels after several painful days. You don’t need to call your doctor for that.  If you get blisters over 20 percent of your body (like the entire back) or you get a regular sunburn with whole body symptoms such as headache, fever and chills, nausea, and dizziness, you should see your doctor. In addition, when you get a sunburn you weaken a barrier between you and a hostile world so the risk of skin infections go up.  If you get swelling of the area or you see pus or red streaking, you will have to call your doctor.  Like always, if something is not quite right even if it isn’t listed here, err of the side of caution and talk with your doctor.

– Dr. Michael White from the UConn School of Pharmacy