November 24, 2017
Sunscreen Myths vs Facts

Sunscreen Myths vs Facts

by Maya Guhan  

We all know that sunscreen is important. It’s in our moisturizer and makeup. We slap it on our body every summer. But are you really protecting your skin? Here are some surprising myths and facts about how to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays.

Myth: How I apply sunscreen does not matter at all.

Fact: The way you apply the sunscreen makes a big difference. Doctors recommend applying about one ounce—enough to fill a shot glass—to your face and exposed parts of your body. Reapply every two hours. Failing to apply the sunscreen evenly can cause you to receive a far lower SPF than advertised.

Myth: 80% of my exposure to damaging UV rays occurs before the age of 18.

Fact: Only 25 percent of total UV exposure occurs before the age of 18, according to research conducted by the Skin Cancer Foundation. You’ll protect your skin at any age when you start applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing.

Myth: People with dark skin can spend more time in the sun without harm.

Fact: Melanin, the compound that colors one’s skin, provides a SPF of about 1.5 to 2, which lowers the risk of skin cancer in people of color. However, this does not eliminate the risk. Because people of color tend to assume they’re naturally protected, they’re often diagnosed with skin cancer when it’s more advanced and potentially fatal. It is essential that people of color use sunscreen to protect themselves from skin cancer, sunburns, and aging.

Myth: Using sunscreen lowers vitamin D levels in your body.

Fact: In order to get your daily Vitamin D, you need to be exposed to the sun for about 15 minutes a day, depending on latitude and season. After the needed amount of time, your body’s production of Vitamin D stops. We do not continuously make and produce Vitamin D every time we are exposed to the sun. If you are unable to get those 15 minutes of exposure a day, some foods with Vitamin D are salmon, tuna, mackerel, cheese, and fortified milk.

Myth: Sunscreens will work at their advertised SPF.

Fact: More than 40 percent of sunscreens tested by Consumer Reports in 2016 fell short of their advertised SPF. Indeed, two sunscreens advertised as having an SPF of 50 actually had an SPF of 8. The good news? Consumer Reports found 17 sunscreens that lived up to their claims, and most are inexpensive and widely available.

Myth: Sunscreen is toxic and puts dangerous chemicals on your skin.

Fact: Some lab studies suggest that chemicals in sunscreens may cause skin allergies or mimic hormones, but no studies have established health problems in people. Meanwhile, it’s well proven that damage from UV rays can cause skin cancer. The FDA considers sunscreen an over-the-counter drug, thus subjects it to more scrutiny and testing than cosmetics, fragrances, or creams.

Myth: If you put on sunscreen, you can stay out in the sun longer.

Fact: While a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF of 15 or above protects against sunburns, it does not protect you from all the sun’s damaging rays. No sunscreen can block all UV rays. Plus, regardless of the SPF, sunscreen is effective for only about two hours (unless reapplied). The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you wear protective hats and clothing to shield your face, arms, and legs from harmful rays.

Myth: SPF is the most important factor to consider when buying sunscreen.

Fact: SPF refers to the sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVB rays, but says nothing about the product’s ability to shield you from UVA rays. Look for the words “Broad Spectrum” on the sunscreen label. That means you’re buying a sunscreen that protects against both UVB and UVA radiation.

Myth: If you sit under a beach umbrella, you don’t need sunscreen since the beach umbrella blocks the sun’s rays.

Fact: Actually, the sand reflects 17% of UV radiation. You still need to wear sunscreen and protective clothing if you’re relaxing under an umbrella on the beach. A 2017 study in JAMA Dermatology found that nearly 80 percent of people who sat under a beach umbrella (6.5 feet diameter) for 3.5 hours without sunscreen had some degree of sunburn the next day, compared to 25 percent of people who used a high-SPF sunscreen and stayed out in the sun. This was despite the fact that the umbrella material allowed no UV to penetrate and the participants in the umbrella group were monitored to ensure that they got no direct sun exposure.

Myth: Having a base tan helps protect your skin.

Fact: A suntan provides your skin with an SPF of 4, not nearly enough to protect you. Moreover, the tan itself is a sign of skin damage. (After being hit by UV rays, the cells in your skin produce melanin to prevent greater damage.) In particular, it’s risky to use tanning beds before summer. Tanning beds emit a lot of UVA radiation, which is less likely to burn the skin than UVB, but which penetrates deeper into your skin.

Originally published July 2016; updated June 2017.

Also see How to Buy the Best Sunscreen.