How To Apply Sunscreen Like A Pale Lifeguard

I've been sunburn-free since 1993! You can make your NEXT 20 years burn-free with these sunscreen application tips.
Publish date:
May 24, 2013
How-To, summer, sunscreens, candles, elta md, Bath & Body Works, skin cancer, Coppertone, sunburns, Solar Sense

I was super-jealous of the lifeguards at my neighborhood pool in the early ‘80s, with their deep, dark tans and ever-present cans of Tab.

Then I grew up to be a lifeguard myself, and realized that both the tan and the Tab could kill me.

For the entire six years of my lifeguarding tenure, I was the one sitting beneath a giant umbrella, covered in a thick layer of sunblock, drinking a Diet Coke.

But during that entire time, never once did I get sunburned. And I have not gotten sunburned since. BURN-FREE SINCE '93!

This is not due to lack of trying; I still swim laps outdoors every summer, and I spend most summer Sundays at the beach. But I devised a foolproof sunscreen-application ritual as a lifeguard that has been a proven skin-saver.

And now I am going to share it with you.

Here’s what you’ll need:

Sunscreen lotion

I like Coppertone Sport SPF 30. It’s waterproof for up to two hours (tried and tested), so if you, like me, can't stand roasting away on a towel and spend all your time underwater wishing the little kids would let you join in the sharks-and-minnows game in the deep end, this will hold you.

I don't use anything over SPF 30 because I don't find them to be any longer-lasting, and the higher number can sometimes discourage frequent reapplication.

Sunscreen spray

Again, I use Coppertone Sport SPF 30, in the Clear Continuous Spray format. This is good for reapplication once you are out because it absorbs fast and is less likely to result in sand stuck all over you.

Sunscreen stick

I use Solar Sense Clear Zinc SPF 50. This is used to touch up small or bony areas: nose, ears, collarbones, tops of shoulders.

Facial sunscreen

Lots of sunblocks--mostly ones with chemical filters--make my oily, acne-prone facial skin break out. I use a mostly physical sunscreen that contains zinc oxide on my face; my favorite is Elta MD UV Clear because it doesn't leave the characteristic white cast zinc usually does and helps keep skin clear.

Hat and hoodie

Sunscreen can only do so much. If I am going to be out in the sun for hours, I'll bring both a brimmed hat and a hoodie and wear some combination of them during the hours the sun is at its peak, between about 10 am and 2 pm.


Layers are key here, as is frequent reapplication. Just remember: layering your sunblock won't double your protection; it will ensure that you get total coverage. So before you head out the door to the pool or beach…

  • Strip. If you try to apply sunscreen with your bathing suit on, you will get burned around the edges. DO THIS NAKED.
  • Cover your entire body with the lotion sunscreen. Draw a line down each limb, then use a palmful on your torso. Even areas covered by your bathing suit.
  • If you’re lucky, someone else will help you out with your back. If you are single and/or a sunblock control freak (or, like me, both), squirt a blob of sunblock about the size of a big gumball on the back of one hand. Rub the back of the other hand in it, twist your hands behind your back and use the backs of your hands to apply the lotion there. If you aren't confident you got covered, or you lack confidence in your abilities as a contortionist, use the spray: turn the bottle upside down and mist away back there.
  • Coat your face, ears and neck--front and back, even if your hair covers the back of your neck--with your facial sunscreen. Get the lotion all the way up into your hairline. Who cares if you get it in your hair? Throw on a hat.
  • If you have an exposed part in your hair, spray sunblock there too.
  • Make sure to get the tops of your feet, and to reapply there frequently if you will be walking in sand.
  • Once you are outdoors, prepare to reapply after about two hours, maybe a bit sooner if you've been swimming. Start with your facial sunscreen, making sure to retouch your nose, ears and neck. Use the spray sunblock all over your body, then touch up with the stick. Pay special attention to the areas under the straps of your suit, where the bottom of the suit touches the tops of your thighs and, if you are wearing a two-piece, the strap under your chest and the waistband of the bottom piece. Sunscreen wears off here fast, so swipe underneath regularly with the stick.

You should use at least an ounce of sunblock every time you apply, then again when you reapply. If you’re saying, but wait, my bottle only has four ounces, and it needs to last all summer! Nope. If you are a regular pool- or beachgoer, factor in regular sunblock purchases to your expenses. Sound pricey? It's still better than shelling out the $150,000 that the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health estimates treatment for late-stage melanoma will cost you.

If all of this makes you decide to stay indoors for the summer, Bath & Body Works makes a candle called Poolside which very accurately mimics the smell of Coppertone and chlorine that marked all of my childhood summers. They forgot the Tab, but for $22, it's a sweet deal.

Are you stringent about sunscreen application? How long have you gone without a sunburn?