Sun Safety: FAQs about Sunscreen

Skin cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, and here in Wisconsin, more than 5,000 surgeries were performed for malignant skin-cancer removal last year, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. 

Sunscreen plays an important role in preventing skin cancer, but not everyone knows how to use it most effectively and safely. With guidance from Prevea dermatology experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HSHS St. Vincent and St. Mary’s Hospitals offer these answers to some common questions about sunscreen. 

How often should a person apply sunscreen? 

Everyone older than six months of age (ideally, parents should avoid exposing babies younger than six months to the sun’s rays) should wear sunscreen. Apply it to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors. Then reapply it approximately every two hours or after swimming, sweating or toweling off. 

What kind of sunscreen should I use? 

Everyone should use sunscreen that offers water resistance, broad-spectrum protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, and a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. 

Creams are best for dry skin and the face; gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp; and sticks are good to use around the eyes. When using spray sunscreen, spray an adequate amount and rub it in to ensure even coverage. (Current Food and Drug Administration [FDA] testing and standardization regulations do not pertain to spray sunscreens. The FDA continues to evaluate these products to ensure safety and effectiveness.) 

Does sunscreen expire? 

The FDA requires all sunscreens to retain their original strength for at least three years, and some include an expiration date. If the expiration date has passed, throw out the sunscreen. If you buy one that does not have an expiration date printed on it, write the date you purchased it on the bottle. Also, any obvious changes in the sunscreen’s color or consistency mean it’s time to throw it out.