Smarter: Is Sunscreen Necessary on Cloudy Days?

Woman using sunscreen lotion at beach Photo: Getty Images

This week I’m asking the question everyone has in mind as summer approaches: Do I have to wear sunscreen in X scenario? (X = overcast days / at home / basically any scenario where it seems counterintuitive to slather myself with sunscreen when there doesn’t seem to be that much sun.)

THE BIG STORY:

‘Return of the Prodigal Sun’

Let’s get this out of the way: I know it’s important to wear sunscreen. I’ve heard it enough times from people around me (hi, mom), and I’m aware that sunscreen is important in shielding our skin from harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which can contribute to premature aging, skin cancer, and sunburn. All those bad things.

That doesn’t mean I always have a good grip on how often I should wear sunscreen. The lazy person in me is happy to forgo the chore of putting it on whenever I’m not 100 percent sure protection from the sun is needed. If it’s a sunny day at the beach, of course, I’ll do it, but on an overcast day? That’s when I’m likely to say, “Oh, surely it can’t be that bad if I skip it today.”

So when should you wear sunscreen? Here’s what dermatologists and CR’s sunscreen experts say.

Get Smarter

Do I have to put sunscreen on if it’s an overcast or rainy day?
Yes, because even on overcast days, up to 80 percent of UV rays can still penetrate light cloud cover and reach your skin, according to the World Health Organization.

Can I skip sunscreen if I’m going out after 5 p.m.?
After 5 p.m., you’re less likely to get burned without sunscreen because the UVB rays, which cause sunburn, are less intense. However, you should still wear sunscreen because as long as there is daylight, there are UVA rays, and those contribute to aging and skin cancer, says Trisha Calvo, a CR deputy editor who has written dozens of articles on sunscreens in her eight years at CR.

What about early mornings?
Yup. Then, too. The sun is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but just like late-afternoon sunlight, morning rays can damage your skin. Especially in the summer, it’s good to wear sunscreen even if it’s early in the morning if you’re going outside, says Laura Ferris, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Okay, what about at home? I don’t have to wear sunscreen if I don’t go out, right?
If you are near a window or skylight that doesn’t have UV protective film for a long period of time at home, it’s recommended that you still put sunscreen on exposed skin because UVA rays can pass through glass, says Susan Booth, who oversees CR’s sunscreen testing and has evaluated hundreds of sunscreens.

Well, what about if I’m in a car?
Yup, you still need it. While windshields made from laminated glass block almost all UVB rays and 98 percent of UVA rays, 79 percent of skin-damaging UVA rays can pass through the side and rear window glass

In case you need more convincing, this picture of the sun damage on the left side of a trucker’s face after 28 years of being on the road speaks for itself, really.

If I’m covered up, do I need to put sunscreen under my clothes?
Focus on sunscreen on exposed skin, says Dathan Hamann, MD, medical director at the Contact Dermatitis Institute, a dermatology clinic in Phoenix. And it’s worth noting that sunscreen is just one of several methods to stay safe in the sun. Sun-protective clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating can also help protect you from the harmful rays of the sun. So does seeking shade and wearing wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. 

“The best sun protection is achieved when using multiple methods on a routine basis,” says Ivy Lee, MD, board-certified dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

What if I’m just going out for a few minutes?
Daily sunscreen is helpful in protecting your skin even just for brief errands. Many people actually do not get most of their sun exposure and damage from laying out under the sun. Instead, it is the short moments of running in and out of doors that we accumulate sun damage, Ivy says.

If you find it cumbersome to apply sunscreen every time you’re going to pop out the door for a few minutes, an easy way to protect your skin is to incorporate sunscreen into your morning regimen. It’s like brushing your teeth or taking vitamins—you can make it a daily habit, not something dependent on the weather or your daily activities, Dathan says.

Have more questions about sunscreen? You can read our answers to common questions about sunscreen, including whether sunscreen expires and whether you need sunscreen if you have darker skin. (Spoilers: Yes and yes.) 

Or hit me up with your most pressing question, and I’ll shed some non-skin-damaging light on it.


DOUBLING DOWN

What are the best practices to put on sunscreen? Here are a few simple tips to save your skin (literally):

⏰ Apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out.

🧴 To cover your entire bathing-suit-clad body, you need about an ounce of sunscreen (one shot glass worth) or 1 teaspoon per body part.

🌊 Reapply every 2 hours or after you sweat a lot or go swimming.

As for what sunscreen you should use, a broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen is what is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.

We’ve tested several sunscreens to see how well they offer protection against UVA and UVB rays. For lotion sunscreen, we recommend La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Lotion SPF 60 (Amazon, Target, and Walgreens) and the decently priced Equate (Walmart) Ultra Lotion SPF 50 (Walmart). 

If you prefer spray sunscreen (and yes, they are as effective as lotion sunscreens), Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+ (Amazon and Trader Joe’s) and Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50 (Amazon and Target) are the most highly rated by us. You can check out more of our best sunscreens of 2022 here.

When you shop through links in our newsletters or on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100 percent of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.


LET’S BE HONEST HERE

We polled social media users on how often they put on sunscreen, whether it’s every time they go out, only on sunny days, or never. Here’s what you told us.

On Instagram, 51 percent of users said they put on sunscreen every time they are outside, so good on you, you folks are doing a great job, certainly a better job than me. Our Twitter users, however, told a slightly different story: The majority of users (52.3 percent) said they applied sunscreen only on sunny days, but at least there’s 26.2 percent of people who say they put it on every day.

As for the people who voted “Never. What is sunscreen?” I wanted to say this: Are you okay? I’m laughing, but I also really, really hope you’re joking.


THE GREAT AMERICAN COOK-OFF

A beef burger on a sesame seed bub piled high with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, sitting on a plate in the sunshine.

Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports

What’s the best way to make burgers? Is it in a cast-iron skillet, under the broiler, or on a gas grill? To find out, CR’s home and appliance writer and trained chef Paul Hope made more than 50 burgers using all three methods. (Who says work can’t be fun?)

Here’s his verdict: “The grill won out by a mile,” Paul says. The burgers were tastier tastier, and it was easy to clean up after cooking. Read more about why using a grill produces perfect burgers.


QUIZ

Which should you put on first, sunscreen or insect repellent?

Sunscreen bottle (left), Insect Repellent Spray (right)

Illustration: Consumer Reports, Getty Images Illustration: Consumer Reports, Getty Images


THANKS, I HATE THIS

All ants are banes of my existence, but there are two specific types that are most likely going to sneak inside people’s homes. One is the odorous house ant (on the left), which some say smells like “rotten coconuts” when it’s crushed, and the carpenter ant (on the right). 

Though they might look similar, there are some key differences: The odorous house ant is typically less than ⅛ inch long and won’t cause any real damage to your home. The carpenter ant is about ¼ to ½ inch long, and it can chew through damp wood and potentially wreak havoc on your doors, windows, and even structural framing.

Home-wrecking abilities aside, neither is fun to see in your kitchen, so if you want to get rid of the ants in your home, keep your food, especially anything sugary, in airtight containers, set out ant baits, and follow more of our tips on how to keep ants away—including why you should skip bug sprays.


THE COVER-UP

How well does this paint cover darker colors?

@consumerreports

To help you find the most effective paint for your home, we test how well paint covers dark colors. We apply it over a black finish, then use a colorimeter to measure how it did. See ratings + reviews at cr.org/home 🖌

♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

THE SHORT ANSWER

Should you eat after an intense workout? Yup.


WE WERE ON A BRAKE

Here are five popular cars that made us go, “Hmm, I’ll pass.”

@consumerreports Skip high-selling models with low scores or reliability ratings 🚫. Learn more at cr.org/cars. #carsoftiktok #cartok #carbuyingtips ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

QUIZ ANSWER

You should put on sunscreen first, and let the sunscreen be absorbed by your skin before you apply insect repellent. A thin film of repellent on exposed skin is enough because heavier doses don’t offer more protection.


Smarter Owl Icon

"Be right back, putting on more sunscreen."


Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."