Why You Should Absolutely Not Be "Sunscreen Contouring"

A dermatologist sets the record straight.

Woman applying sunscreen

Stocksy, Design by Tiana Crispino

Listen: there's nothing we love more than a life hack, and that goes double for beauty. Anything that saves us money, time, and, most crucially, effort piques our interest. But, as the saying goes, some things are too good to be true. And as for one particular TikTok video going viral for the second summer in a row, this hack is definitely too good to be true—and potentially damaging.

Dubbed suntan contouring, one TikToker—partially shellacked in white sunscreen—shared a technique in which she applies an initial layer of SPF 30 to her entire face and then layers a thicker SPF 90 to its high points. The results, she claims, make your face look "naturally snatched"—a term we usually reserve for a sharp contour and healthy amount of highlighter.

There's an appeal on a purely theoretical level to a natural contour, but the "hack" ignores the necessary (and dermatologist recommended) skincare practice we all know to be essential: protection from the sun.

What Is Sunscreen Contouring

The original viral video's resurgence this summer—racking up more than 12 million views and tens of thousands of comments in total—can be partially credited to the season. But it's also worth noting that as daily sunscreen use becomes de rigueur for anyone with even a passing interest in skincare, it has generated quite a few follow-up videos of others trying the ill-advised "hack."

In a highly controversial video, Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow used a similar technique. Demonstrating her daily sunscreen application, GP explains that she doesn't apply it "head to toe," but rather dabs it on with her ring finger "where the sun really hits." She then demonstrated, tapping the SPF 30 down her nose, under her eyes, the tops of her cheekbones, and... nowhere else. The video sparked discussion among viewers and skincare professionals alike, with the consensus being to stick to current guidelines, which recommend at least 1.5 ounces for full-body coverage. In short, treating sunscreen like a highlighter will not give you the protection you need.

Setting the Record Straight

To get the real deal on this strategic sunscreen phenomenon, we turned to Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist. And reader, Dr. N did not mince words. "What the trend is promoting is essentially a Sophie’s Choice of skin health," she explains.

"What skin do you choose to age faster, expose to radiation more, and sacrifice to skin cancer? Do you want your cheeks to be more wrinkly? Or would you rather your jawline be saggier?" According to Nazarian, the health consequences—not to mention its effects on your skin's appearance—are too severe to try this technique out. But even if they weren't, this is still one to skip.

Why It Doesn't Work

Even on a theoretical level, this hack is bunk. All areas of your face don't get the same amount of sunlight, so trying to control that exposure through varying SPF levels is impossible. In short, there's no way to predict how the sun will tan different parts of the face.

"You may get more sun on top, or from an angle. Radiation bounces off sand, cement, water and hits us at different locations, so your exposure varies all over your face. You could easily get patchy sunburns, or more patchy tanning than you're planning on," Nazarian says. As one TikTok commenter put it: "Girl the sun is not gonna blend it for you."

Expert-Approved SPF Recommendations

Dr. Nazarian urges everyone to stick to SPF, recommending a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 30 all over your body. And don't skip on the reapplication either—every two hours is key. "Choosing to protect some areas of your body more than others in an effort to cosmetically contour is as smart as using a condom with holes in it," Nazarian adds. "Once one part of your skin develops a skin cancer (like melanoma) your whole body gets punished."

The Alternatives

For those on the hunt for a natural-looking contour that won't affect your health, consider trying out a cream contour formula that melts into your skin, creating the illusion of a perfectly strategic suntan. Patrick Ta's new Major Sculpt Creme Contour ($36), for example, comes loaded with one cream shade and one powder for seamless application. Layer it over sunscreen you'll get that "snatched" look—without the sun damage.

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