Here's How Often You Really Need To Reapply Your Sunscreen

Dermatologists reiterate the importance of a habit we're all neglecting to keep up.
Do you really think they're reapplying every two hours?
Malte Mueller via Getty Images
Do you really think they're reapplying every two hours?

Let’s face it: Part of becoming an adult is realizing just how dumb you were when you were younger. What seems unimportant at 18 or 20 can suddenly seem very important at 30. Take saving money, for example, or staying hydrated.

There’s also the matter of using sunscreen. Though most of us know just how important SPF is for preventing skin damage and, more importantly, skin cancer, it’s tempting to skip sunscreen altogether when you’re feeling young and unstoppable. It also can be easy to forget another important detail about wearing SPF: Reapplication.

Applying and reapplying sunscreen throughout the day is key to getting the most protection possible, especially in places with a lot of sun exposure. Even if you’re reapplying regularly, there are a few things you might be doing wrong or misunderstanding about the process.

When To Apply (And Reapply) Sunscreen

When it comes to sunscreen, the most important thing to know is that you need to put it on before you go outside. Period. What’s more, you have to apply face and body sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside, allowing it to absorb into your skin, as Paula’s Choice skin care advisory board member and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman explained.

For face sunscreen, this means letting your base layer of SPF absorb into the skin before you apply foundation or other products. Jaliman suggests waiting 3 to 5 minutes after facial SPF application, then applying the foundation in “smooth, downward motions” with “no rubbing back and forth.” If that foundation or tinted moisturizer also contains SPF, even better.

After you’ve applied your sunscreen and makeup, it’s time to think about reapplication. Generally, the rule is to apply sunscreen every two hours, but there’s more flexibility there than you might think.

First of all: Don’t worry, you don’t have to take off all your makeup and start over every two hours.

“That isn’t very practical or, as it turns out, necessary if you’re wearing a high enough SPF rated sunscreen and applying it liberally the first time,” Jaliman explained. “The two-hour recommendation came about because the research made it clear most people were not applying sunscreen liberally. Therefore, regulators followed the logic that if a person applies sunscreen again two hours later, they’d be ensuring more adequate protection. But if you apply it liberally in the beginning, reapplication isn’t critical.”

When in doubt, consider what you have planned for your day. If you are going to be outside in direct sunlight all day, consider wearing a higher SPF, a wide-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing, and reapplying liberally throughout the day. If you’re going to be inside all day, you can handle things a bit differently.

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“If you apply sunscreen in the morning and spend most of your day inside (without your skin getting wet or perspiring heavily) and if when outside, you’re seeking shade, wearing sunglasses and hats with brims, your sunscreen should still be effective by the end of the day,” Jaliman said. “This is because sunscreen actives break down in response to direct exposure to daylight, not just from the passage of time.”

How To Reapply Sunscreen Over Makeup

Say you’re going to be spending all day outside in the sun. What then? As Jaliman said, it’s important to reapply sunscreen in addition to wearing protective gear like hats and long sleeves. What’s also important is finding a type of sunscreen that you’re actually going to want to use again and again.

For many people, applying a lotion or cream over makeup just isn’t practical, but there are other options — they just might not be quite as effective.

“Powder can work well, but typically not as well as creams or gels as your initial sunscreen. I typically recommend a lotion, cream or gel as your initial sunscreen and powder for reapplication,” said board-certified dermatologist Morgana Colombo. “Sunscreen efficacy relates to SPF and proper quantity being applied. Applying enough powder so that it performs as well as a cream or gel is difficult. Powders also come off easier when a person sweats or during COVID times if the person wears a mask.”

In other words, layering on a base of lotion SPF with an SPF-containing foundation on top may work well initially, and using powder to reapply can be a good option, too. But it’s important to know that the powder might not give you quite as much protection as you think.

A mist is another option to consider if you’re not a fan of reapplying with a lotion or a powder, said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky.

“My favorite way is to use a sunscreen mist,” Zubritsky said, recommending Sun Bum’s daily sunscreen face mist. “It’s great because it works even as a setting spray for makeup and is easy and convenient to reapply my sunscreen. I also love reapplying my sunscreen with a beauty blender. I’ll usually use a tinted sunscreen when using this method to match with my foundation.”

What Not To Do When Reapplying Sunscreen

When it comes to what not to do when reapplying sunscreen, the most important things to consider are your plans for any given day. If you’re going to be sweating profusely and/or swimming a lot throughout the day, that is particularly important to keep in mind.

“Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours if out in the sun, and every hour if in and out of water,” Colombo said. In other words, waiting two hours to reapply sunscreen if you’re spending all day in the pool can wreak serious havoc on your skin. Any reapplication is better than none, of course, but it’s worth being extra diligent if you’re spending most of your day in the ocean, lake or pool.

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Similarly, it’s important to know that there are different reapplication guidelines for waterproof sunscreens.

With water-resistant sunscreens, you must follow the specific reapplication instructions for adequate protection after getting wet or perspiring,” Jaliman advised.

Another tip? Just because you’re inside all day doesn’t mean you can skip reapplication — particularly if you sit in a sunny location.

“You should also reapply if you sit next to a window as UVA rays can penetrate window glass,” said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology.

What’s more, don’t think that because you apply SPF 50 under your makeup each morning that you need to reapply with the same level of SPF. As Hartman explained, as long as you are reapplying with at least SPF 30, you’re still getting a good level of protection. Still, the skin on the face is more sensitive than the rest of the body, so a higher SPF certainly doesn’t hurt.

Another common error is waiting until you experience intense sunlight exposure to reapply ― or worse, apply in the first place. No matter how strong or hot the sun may feel, if you go outside during the day, your skin is exposed to sunlight.

Research has shown that sun damage begins the first minute your unprotected skin sees daylight — not sunlight, but daylight,” Jaliman explained.

Finally, while powder sunscreens can work for reapplication and touch-ups, Jaliman said people shouldn’t rely on these products as their only SPF as it’s hard to use enough of them to achieve a safe level of sun protection.

The Best Products To Use (And Avoid) For Reapplication

Knowing exactly which products to use for face sunscreen reapplication can be difficult. When in doubt, remember that any sun protection is better than none, as long as it’s SPF 30 or higher. But there are several dermatologist-recommended products that might just make your search a little bit easier.

Colombo and Hartman both suggested the Colorscience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Sunscreen. Hartman called it a “perfect complement to daily sunscreen moisturizer,” noting that it doubles as a mattifier and adds an extra layer of protection throughout the day to fortify the base layer. Even better, it’s “neat, easy to apply over makeup and comes in a shade for every skin tone,” Hartman said.

Both Colombo and Hartman suggested La Roche Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion Spray SPF 60 for more active days, as it is water- and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

Finally, Hartman recommended Shiseido’s Clear Sunscreen Stick SPF 50+ for a perfect reapplication tool, especially for those with darker skin as it won’t leave any kind of white cast.

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