The right way to apply sunscreen

It's not as simple as you'd think, but tips can keep you from getting burned

By Nikki Kimbleton - The Morning Show anchor, Karyn Repinski, Consumer Reports

If you prefer spray sunscreens, you're not alone.

Their popularity is on the rise, with sales inching nearer to top-selling lotions, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. As the study authors note, people like the quick and easy application that sprays provide.

"They tend to be lighter too, so you don't feel all matted down," Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, told Consumer Reports.

It's not difficult to find high-performing spray sunscreens either: In our tests, we found many that got high ratings for protection against both ultraviolet (UV) A and UVB rays-and one, Equate (Walmart) Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30, is just 83 cents an ounce. (UVA rays are those that primarily cause skin aging, while UVB rays are the chief cause of sunburn. Both contribute to skin cancer.)

But even the best sunscreen won't protect you if you don't use it properly, and unfortunately, sprays are trickier to use than lotions. And sprays may pose a health hazard for some users. These issues might explain why spray sunscreens haven't been universally accepted by dermatologists, with only 69 percent of 540 surveyed saying they recommend sprays to their patients in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

READ MORE: Study names 14 most dangerous sunscreens for children

So to ensure you're safe in the sun, check out these tips from Consumer Reports before hitting the spritz:  

Skip sprays for kids

While safe for skin, sprays can be dangerous if you accidentally breathe them in.

"Some sunscreen ingredients can be lung irritants, and some sprays contain titanium dioxide," explained Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports.

That ingredient, when inhaled in large amounts, has been linked to cancer in rodent studies.

Because children are more likely to squirm when they're being sprayed, allowing the spray to inadvertently go toward their face and be inhaled, Consumer Reports recommends that caregivers avoid using spray sunscreens on kids unless no other product is available. And if you have to use a spray, spray the product into your hands and rub it onto the child's skin.

Keep spray away from your face

To avoid inhaling potentially dangerous ingredients, adults shouldn't spray their face. Instead, spray sunscreen on your hands and rub it on, making sure to avoid to your eyes and mouth.

Hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray generously. It takes about an ounce of sunscreen to fully cover an adult's body, but with a spray it's hard to see how much you're applying, creating the possibility that you'll use too little and miss spots. A good rule of thumb is to spray until your skin glistens.

Rub it in thoroughly

Even if the sunscreen is labeled "no-rub," you should still smooth it into your skin for at least 10 seconds to get an even layer of coverage, according to Gohara.

"Otherwise you'll inevitably miss spots," Gohara said.

Avoid sprays on windy days

Strong gusts can make it more difficult to apply spray and easier to accidentally inhale it. If no other sunscreen is available, spray the sunscreen into your hands before rubbing it on your body.

"On windy days, you may be protecting the air more than your skin," Gohara said. 

Don't use sprays if you're going to be near an open flame

Sprays might (literally) burn you: The Food & Drug Administration reported incidences in which people wearing spray sunscreen near sources of flame (such as a grill) suffered significant burns that required medical treatment. The culprit: Spray sunscreen contains alcohol, which is flammable.

Disregard the advice that it's safe to be around a flame if your spray sunscreen is thoroughly rubbed in and dry.

"Even if skin feels dry, the FDA advises that the wearer of any flammable sunscreen avoid open flames or any material that can throw sparks," Huber said.

Burns have the potential to be more severe in children than in adults, which is yet another reason why Consumer Reports advises not using spray sunscreens on kids. 

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