How to Prevent Sunburn

How to Prevent Sunburn

Sunburn is a surefire way to put a damper on outdoor fun. While applying (and reapplying) sunscreen isn’t fun, spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. To decrease the risk, it's imperative to regularly use a sunscreen with a broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher.

We don’t want anyone to suffer the potentially dangerous, tight, painful feeling of sunburn or the aftermath of peeling and all the other repercussions. Even a mild sunburn where you see only a little bit of pink is bad news for your skin—and the more often it happens, the more damage to your skin.

At Paula’s Choice our goal is to help you have the best skin of your life, and being safe in the outdoors, rain or shine, is always at the top of our list.


Why Do I Get Sunburned?

Many factors contribute to the risk and severity of sunburn, including skin color, the kind of sunscreen you use, how much sunscreen you apply, how often you reapply, the time of day when you’re outside, whether or not you’re swimming, and whether you’re basking in the sun or seeking shade.

We often hear from people who say they’ve gotten sunburned even though they applied and reapplied what they think is a copious amount of sunscreen. It is possible to get burned even if you applied sunscreen, usually for one of the following reasons:

  1. Misunderstanding how to apply sunscreen and how much counts as "liberal application."
  2. Applying sunscreen once you get to where you’re going rather than applying it before you leave the house.
  3. Relying only on sunscreen to protect your skin. Sunglasses, UV-rated clothing, a hat, and seeking shade are as important as sunscreen.
  4. Basking or exercising in the sun, thinking that the sunscreen is enough to protect you … it isn’t.

How to Avoid Sunburn

The easiest way to avoid sunburn and sun damage is to not go outside. For the most part, that’s neither practical nor fun. The next best thing to prevent it is to not bask in the sun, especially without a liberal application of sunscreen BEFORE you leave the house!

Following is a list of the absolute gospel of how to protect your skin from the sun and the resulting sunburn that many people endure, when they don’t have to:

  • Liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater to all areas of exposed skin at least 15 minutes before heading outside. "Liberal" means you can see a fairly thick layer of sunscreen, which you then massage into skin.
  • If you’ll be swimming or perspiring heavily, apply a water-resistant sunscreen. You still must reapply it because they don’t last very long when you’re wet. Sunscreens labeled "water resistant" will last 40 minutes when you’re wet; sunscreens labeled "very water resistant" will last 80 minutes. We know that isn’t the best news, but it’s the best way to take care of your skin.
  • Use the SPF number rating to determine how long the protection will last. To do this, you need an idea of how many minutes it takes your skin to turn color without sun protection. For most people with fair skin, that’s 10–15 minutes; more if your natural skin color is darker. So, if you’re using an SPF 30, you multiply that number by the number of minutes it takes to see a color change in your skin if you don’t use an SPF.
  • If you’ll be outdoors in direct sunlight, the recommendation from the FDA is to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. We know that’s not practical for lots of people, but do the best you can. Your skin will thank you for it.
  • Protect your scalp and, to some extent, your face and neck by wearing a broad-brimmed hat; a baseball cap is helpful, but it leaves your neck and ears at risk.
  • We wish everyone would wear UV-rated clothing for long days out in the sun, especially at the beach. We know that wearing practically nothing (especially on a hot day) is far more stylish, sexy, and comfortable, but for your skin it’s anything but vogue—it’s damaging. It’s hard to keep enough sunscreen on your entire body without spending a fortune. Covering large sections of your body with UV-rated clothing, from brands like Coolibar, Solumbra, and UVSkinz, is a spectacular way to protect your skin, especially when you’re swimming, and it’s ideal for those who don’t like the feel of sunscreen from head to toe.
  • Wear UV-rated sunglasses to shield the skin around your eyes and the eyes themselves. Just ask any ophthalmologist about the long-term damage to your eyes from not regularly wearing sunglasses!
  • Avoid being in the sun during the peak hours when UV light is most intense, typically between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
  • Seek shade whenever possible; basking in the sun is never a good idea, although we know this might be the hardest advice to follow because being in the sun can feel so great.
  • Get inside as quickly as possible if you see your skin turning pink, even if you have reapplied sunscreen.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen on commonly missed areas prone to sunburn: Tops of your ears and bare feet, the part in your hair, the back of your neck, and the top of your hands.

Skincare Ingredients and Sun Sensitivity

Sun sensitivity (also known as photosensitivity) means that the skin is sensitive to any kind of sun exposure. Surprisingly, this type of sensitivity can actually be caused by skincare products that contain plant extracts that may make sun damage worse.

If your skin is photosensitive, it means you’re more likely to get sunburn, so it’s extra important to follow all of the tips above. Check your skincare products for the following ingredients, which can be sensitizing no matter how your skin reacts in the sun:

  • St. John’s wort
  • Fragrance ingredients, such as coumarin and limonene
  • Citrus oils, such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, and bergamot
  • Lavender oil
  • Rosemary oil
  • Sandalwood oil
  • Plant oils belonging to the Umbelliferae family, which includes parsley, carrot, dill, angelica, anise, and fennel
  • Glycolic or lactic acids (AHAs)
  • Benzoyl peroxide

Learn From Your Burn

One sunburn per year might not seem very serious, but the research is clear: Repeated unprotected sun exposure, getting sunburned, or repeatedly getting tan not only causes early skin aging, but also causes further damage that affects skin’s appearance, in ways you ultimately won’t like when you look in the mirror.

With the right sunscreen, sun-protective clothing, and following our other recommendations, you can avoid the misery of sunburn—and significantly lessen your risk of seeing advanced signs of aging, including wrinkles, leathery skin texture, brown spots, and dramatically uneven skin tone.

Learn more about what the sun is doing to your skin and how you can prevent it. See our sunscreen infographic.

Learn more about sunscreen.

References for this information:

British Journal of Dermatology, February 2015, pages 475-483
Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, June 2012, pages 120-126
Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology, and Leprology, June 2012, Supplement, pages S9-S14
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, November 2011, Supplement, pages S14-S123
Toxicology in Vitro, June 2006, pages 480-489
Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology, November 2001, pages 105-108

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!