Go to AAD Home
Donate For Public and Patients Store Search

Go to AAD Home

Confused about sunscreen? New American Academy of Dermatology survey shows Americans need a refresher on sunscreen application and SPF

Board-certified dermatologist goes beyond the numbers to ensure consumers are sun-safe heading into Memorial Day weekend

ROSEMONT, Ill. (May 25, 2021) — With many planning outdoor gatherings this Memorial Day weekend, board-certified dermatologists want to make sure consumers don’t get burned by confusing sunscreen labels or the sun’s harmful rays. In a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, the American Academy of Dermatology found that while 80% of Americans know they should apply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors, few do.

According to the survey:

  • Only 33% typically reapply sunscreen every two hours, while 42% either tend to not reapply sunscreen at all or reapply it only when they get wet.

  • 30% apply sunscreen just to their face instead of also applying it to other areas of their body.

“As family and friends get together outdoors this holiday weekend and throughout the summer, we want to remind everyone to practice safe sun, which includes seeking shade, wearing sun-protective clothing, and applying sunscreen every two hours when outdoors, or after swimming or sweating, to all skin not protected by clothing,” says board-certified dermatologist Henry W. Lim, MD, FAAD, former chair of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “Reapplication is key along with understanding SPF. Many people mistakenly assume that they can apply the sunscreen with the highest SPF rating and then stay out in the sun all day without reapplying; however, SPF is a measurement of how well a sunscreen protects the skin from the sun’s UVB rays, which cause sunburn. It is not a measurement of how long someone can stay in the sun or how frequently it needs to be applied.”

Alongside seeking shade and wearing sun-protective clothing, Dr. Lim says sunscreen is a vital tool in the fight against skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S. Research suggests that daily use of sunscreen reduces the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. However, sunscreen labels can be confusing for even the most sun-savvy consumers, says Dr. Lim.

A recent report in JAMA Dermatology found that when it comes to selecting sunscreen, most consumers consider the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating to be the most important criteria.

“There is a lot of information on sunscreen labels, and one piece of information isn’t necessarily more important than another,” says Dr. Lim. “I tell my patients to look for three things when choosing a sunscreen — SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum protection, and water resistance.”

By the Numbers:

According to Dr. Lim, an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97% of the sun's UVB rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun's UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun's UVB rays. That’s why the AAD recommends that everyone #PracticeSafeSun by following a comprehensive sun protection plan that includes three simple steps when outdoors:

  • Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

  • Wear sun-protective clothing, such as a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection, when possible. For more effective sun protection, select clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) number on the label.

  • Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember to reapply every two hours when outdoors or after swimming or sweating.


“Broad spectrum” is a term used on sunscreen labels to indicate that the sunscreen protects against two types of harmful ultraviolet rays — UVB rays that can cause your skin to burn and UVA rays that can cause premature skin aging, including wrinkles and age spots. Both types of UV rays can lead to skin cancer without taking the proper precautions.

“About 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and we know that a majority of melanomas are attributable to UV exposure,” said Dr. Lim. “That’s why it’s critically important to minimize your exposure to both UVB and UVA rays, and to make sure you understand how to do that.”

Another term that Dr. Lim recommends looking for on sunscreen is “water-resistant.” However, he emphasizes that there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. Water-resistant means the sunscreen will stay on wet skin for up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes, as identified on the label. Since sweat and water can wash sunscreen off the skin, sunscreens labeled water-resistant help keep sunscreen on the skin when people are active outdoors. The AAD also recommends that consumers:

  • Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors.

  • Apply enough sunscreen to cover all exposed skin. Most adults need about one ounce — or enough to fill a shot glass — to fully cover their body.

When selecting a sunscreen, Dr. Lim says it helps to familiarize yourself with the two types of sunscreens available — chemical and physical. Both protect you from the sun, he notes, but in different ways:

  • Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays. They contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. While studies have shown that some of these chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body through the skin, the researchers pointed out that just because an ingredient is absorbed into the body does not mean that it is harmful or unsafe.

  • Physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, act like a shield. They sit on the surface of the skin, deflecting the sun’s rays. These are products that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

Scientific evidence supports the benefits of using sunscreen to minimize short-term and long-term damage to the skin from the sun’s UV rays. In recognition of Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May, the AAD is encouraging Americans to #PracticeSafeSun to protect themselves and their families from skin cancer. To learn more about sun protection and skin cancer prevention and test your skin cancer knowledge via a short quiz, visit PracticeSafeSun.org. If you have questions about sunscreen or how to protect your skin from the sun, see a board-certified dermatologist. To find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit aad.org/findaderm.

# # #


Nicole Dobkin, ndobkin@aad.org

Julie Landmesser, JLandmesser@aad.org

More information:

About the AAD Headquartered in Rosemont, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology, founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 20,000 physicians worldwide, the AAD is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the AAD at (888) 462-DERM (3376) or aad.org. Follow the AAD on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology), Twitter (@AADskin), Instagram (@AADskin1), or YouTube (AcademyofDermatology).

Editor’s note: The AAD does not promote or endorse any products or services. This content is intended as editorial content and should not be embedded with any paid, sponsored or advertorial content as it could be perceived as an AAD endorsement.