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There are so many things to do in the morning and only so much time to get them done before starting your day. Whether you’ll be spending most of your time inside or you’re able to get out and enjoy the sun, there’s one thing you may want to incorporate into your daily routine – applying sunscreen.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The SPF number tells you how well a sunscreen will protect your skin from UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the greater the skin protection.

What are UV, UVA and UVB rays?

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are one of the many different types of rays in sunlight. UV rays have the greatest effect on our skin.

UVA rays

UVA rays are associated with skin aging including causing skin to sag, wrinkle and have a leathery appearance and uneven skin pigmentation. UVA rays are also proven to contribute to the development of skin cancer.

UVB rays

UVB rays are closely connected to skin burning. Both UVA and UVB rays cause damage when your skin isn’t properly protected, so it’s important to pick a sunscreen that offers enough – and the right – protection.

Types of sunblock to try

Choosing the right sunscreen is an important step in protecting yourself from skin cancers and skin damage.

"When I purchase sunscreen, I always look for an SPF that’s 30 or higher and look for something that’s broad spectrum in coverage," says Emily Dolan, MD, Gundersen Health System, Internal Medicine. "That covers both UV-A rays from the sun as well as the UV-B rays so I’m not just getting protection from skin cancer, but I’m also protecting my skin from the damage that causes skin age spots and wrinkles as well hyperpigmentation."

What to look for in a sunscreen

Alright. You’ve found a sunblock that is SPF 30 or higher and labeled “broad spectrum.” What other features should you be on the lookout for?

  • Choose the application type that you prefer. Sunscreen sticks offer convenience and are easier for targeted application. Sprays and lotions are a little more versatile and make it easier to cover the entire body quickly.
  • Check the label for a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Look for UV blockers such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789).
  • Check that it’s water-resistant.

"I think it’s important that people grab water-resistant sunscreen. That way if you’re working out and you’re sweating – or you’re in the pool – your sunscreen is still providing that long-lasting coverage," details Dr. Dolan.

When should I apply sunscreen?

Try to make sunscreen a part of your daily routine. Even if you are spending most of your day inside, you’re still probably getting UVA rays through the windows. Standard glass windows block UVB but not UVA rays, which can penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays.

You’ll find that some lotions, moisturizers and makeup have added sunscreen (usually SPF 15 or greater). This is generally adequate for everyday use with limited sun exposure.

Make sure you choose a sunscreen with higher SPF (30 or greater) if you’re planning to spend long stretches of time outside. Don't skimp — generously apply sunblock 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. It’s important to use sunscreen even if it's cloudy since burning rays can penetrate clouds.

Don't forget those often-overlooked areas such as ears, neck, nose, lips (use SPF 45 lip balm) and the part in your hair.

How long does sunscreen last?

Just as important as applying sunscreen first thing in the morning is reapplying as the day goes on. A general rule of thumb is to reapply sunscreen about every two hours; more often if you’re sweating or swimming.

Check the label on your sunscreen for more specific guidance. It provides directions on how often to reapply to ensure the proper level of sunscreen protection.

Does sunscreen expire?

Yes. Your sunblock should have an expiration date on it. To ensure you’re being protected properly, don’t use sunscreen that has expired.

How to treat a sunburn

We’re not perfect. You may forget sunscreen one day or lose track of time between applications. You can normally ease sunburn symptoms at home with a cool bath, a wet cloth or some ibuprofen. Applying aloe vera lotion can also help soothe the affected skin.

How do I monitor for skin damage?

Your primary care provider can help you keep track of any moles or skin irregularities that can arise from your time in the sun. A visit with a dermatologist may be in order if you have deeper concerns about your skin.

For more health tips from Dr. Emily Dolan, watch the Outside the Exam Room video series.

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