Is Becoming a Hermit the Only Way to Avoid Sunburn?

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Welcome to Am I Dying, a column that hopes to save you from your late-night WebMD spiraling. You can email us your hypochondriac questions at amidying@nymag.com.

I’m a very pale person in general, so when I get any sun whatsoever, I immediately burn. I try to remember to wear sunscreen, but I’m not sure what SPF I should be using, and what kind of sunscreen, and how often I should be reapplying, and it seems like I’ll often get a little burned no matter what I do — unless I just … don’t go outdoors, ever.

For what it’s worth, I think staying indoors all the time forever sounds great, personally, but I realize that isn’t a practical (or desirable) option for most people. And I guess even I might miss, I don’t know, trees.

So yes: apply sunscreen, vigorously and often: especially to your face. Dr. Jennifer Stein, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health, recommends wearing it year-round, at least on your face. “There’s some evidence that using a sunscreen on your face on a regular basis can prevent some forms of skin cancer, and it’s easy to find moisturizers that have sunscreen in them,” she says.

Many newer sunscreens come in spray form, which I assumed were somehow inferior to the classic goopy white liquid, but Stein says that’s not the case. “Spray sunscreen can work just fine, and it’s easy, especially for wiggly kids who are hard to hold down, or when you’re reapplying at the beach,” she says. It is a little harder to tell where you’ve applied spray sunscreen, though, so better to apply it liberally, and enlist a friend to help cover your back and other hard-to-reach places. Also, says Stein, in case you were planning on spraying yourself down next to a barbecue … don’t, because spray sunscreen is very flammable.

As far as what SPF to use, Stein tells me there’s an easy formula anyone can use to figure it out. “SPF tells you how many times longer you can stay in the sun with that sunscreen than you could without the sunscreen,” she says. “So, for example, let’s say you’re really fair, and you burn in ten minutes. If you were to wear an SPF 30, that would mean you could stay in the sun for 300 minutes before you start to burn, compared to ten minutes without.” What! How have I never heard of this before?

This formula, while very satisfying, does come with a caveat. Stein says these numbers are based on manufacturer tests, in which sunscreen is usually heavily applied. Since most people don’t apply sunscreen as heavily (or effectively) as manufacturers do for testing purposes, you might want to boost the SPF you’re using to cover your tracks. “If you’re just using an SPF 30, but you only put a little bit on, you may not be getting the full 30,” says Stein. “So that’s a reason to go for higher numbers, especially for people who are really fair and burn very easily, or if you have other kinds of skin conditions where you’re particularly sensitive for the sun.” This is doubly true if you’ve had positive tests for pre-cancerous moles, for instance.

Sunscreen is a powerful, but imperfect tool, which is why Stein also recommends supplementing your protection regimen with sun-blocking clothing. “Clothing works so much better than sunscreen for protecting you from sun damage,” she says. “It used to be that it was very difficult to find nice protective clothing — it was expensive, it wasn’t necessarily attractive, it was hard to find, but I think there’s been an explosion of protective clothing in recent years.” This does not mean you have to wear one of those floppy dad hats with the string hanging under your chin to stay safe from sun damage (although that might help); there are lots of options for still-stylish sun protective clothing for the palest among us, kids and adults: Patagonia, Uniqlo, and Athleta have sun-protective lines, for starters.

If all else fails, have you considered a parasol? Embrace that sickly Austen sister look all the way to fall.

Is Becoming a Hermit the Only Way to Avoid Sunburn?