Ask a Beauty Editor: What's the Most Effective Way to Apply Sunscreen?

AKA not the Gwyneth Paltrow way.

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In light of Gwyneth Paltrow's skincare video, what's the right way to apply sunscreen? —@aschubertt

So you've obviously seen the incriminating video in question, but for those who haven't, Gwyneth Paltrow (yes the Gwyneth Paltrow, founder of beauty and wellness brand Goop) did a video for Vogue where she ran through her skincare routine. In it, she tells viewers, "And I'm not, you know, I'm not a sort of head-to-toe slatherer of sunscreen, but I like to put some kind of it on my nose and the area where the sun really hits."

...And then she proceeds to apply sunscreen on the tip of her nose and along her cheekbones.

how-to-apply-sunscreen: bottle of sunscreen and lotion in shape of sun
ADragan / Creative #: 1209457306

There's a lot to unpack here. I would hope that most people know sunscreen is not supposed to be applied like highlighter. Granted, there has been a lot of crossover between makeup and skincare in recent years, but that does not mean that skincare is makeup. And just because makeup with SPF exists does not mean SPF should be applied like makeup.

Saying you're not a sort of head-to-toe slatherer of sunscreen is kind of like saying you only brush your teeth where it shows when you smile. It really defeats the purpose.

The point is that you can't control where the sun hits your face, because the sun hits it everywhere. Note the word "screen" in sunscreen; it's supposed to act as a protective barrier between the sun and your skin. You wouldn't wear a partial suit of armor before going into war; you'd want to make sure you're completely covered.

So how do you do that? Even if you're not dabbing sunscreen with your ring finger, there's still a good chance that you're not applying sunscreen the right way. Hey, I'm just going off the stats. According to the AAD, the majority of people only apply 25 to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.

Adults need a shot glass of sunscreen applied to their body for full protection. That's a whole lot of sunscreen, probably a lot more than you feel is right. For your face, this measurement translates into roughly a quarter-sized dollop, or the amount to cover the length of two fingers.

As a rule of thumb, sunscreen should be applied as the last step in your skincare routine (i.e., after serums and moisturizer). Chemical sunscreens are an exception. "These formulas are made up of chemicals that are absorbed into the skin," says Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Once applied, they absorb the UV rays and create a chemical reaction that changes the UV rays into heat and releases it from the skin. Due to the nature of application, they should not be applied on top of an occlusive product (i.e., moisturizer) that does not allow absorption, so theoretically should be applied earlier in the routine."

When it comes to rubdown, I defer to the technique recommended by Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City: Apply sunscreen from the center of your face and rub (not tap) it up and out. This ensures that you cover the entire face and don't miss any areas of skin around the borders, like your hairline or jaw. If you're using a spray, apply until an even sheen appears on the skin.

Once you've applied the sunscreen, make sure to rub it fully into the skin until you cannot see it anymore. Dermatologists recommend your fingers as the best applicator here, but you can use a sponge or brush so long as you're accounting for the amount of sunscreen that will get absorbed into the tool.

Don't forget your neck, ears, and the top of your head, all parts of your body that have skin. Not to scare you, but even your lips can develop skin cancer, so you should be using a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher. And since 10 percent of melanomas occur on the scalp, take extra precautions by applying powder sunscreen on your scalp line.

In terms of timing, if you're using a chemical sunscreen, apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outdoors to give it time to absorb. "The general guideline is to wait to allow for the chemicals to be absorbed," says Dr. King. Unlike chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens work as soon as you apply them, so Dr. King says there's no need to wait the full 20 minutes.

Lastly, you should reapply sunscreen every two hours—but let's be honest, most of us aren't going to whip out a bottle of sunscreen and start rubbing it on our face in the middle of the office. This is when powder sunscreens and setting sprays with SPF come in handy, both of which can be applied casually over makeup.

So to recap: choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher, allocate enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass, apply sunscreen to all skin not covered by clothing, and rub the formula thoroughly until you can't see it anymore. As long as you're doing all that (and for the love of skincare, not treating it like highlighter), you should be OK.

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