Busting Sunscreen Myths: Get the Facts on Sun Protection

Busting Sunscreen Myths: Get the Facts on Sun Protection featured image
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We know that sunscreen is vital for protecting our skin from dangerous UV rays, but there are still plenty of things we can get wrong about sun protection. From decoding the effectiveness of multitasking products, to when and how you need to apply sunscreen, we asked the experts to address the most common sunscreen myths.

Myth: My SPF is 50 or above, so I don’t have to reapply as often.

You may be inclined to believe that a higher SPF means more protection for longer. Neither is really true.

An SPF of 30 blocks 97% of the sun’s rays, which means that the rest of the SPF range is fighting to block that final three percent. The highest SPF, 100, still doesn’t meet that goal, and only blocks out 99% of rays. Not only does a higher SPF not provide multiple times more sun-protection, it also doesn’t stick around any longer than a lower SPF.

Plymouth, MA dermatologist and spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation, Ramzi Saad, MD explains that reapplication in a timely manner is necessary regardless of SPF level. “You should reapply sunscreen every two hours and immediately after swimming or sweating,” Dr. Saad says. “Direct sun exposure breaks sunscreen down over time. This is true regardless of SPF level and whether a product contains mineral or chemical UV filters.”

So, no matter what SPF your sunscreen is, UV rays break it down at the same rate. “Proper reapplication is key for maintaining the level of SPF protection a sunscreen promises,” Dr. Saad explains.

Myth: Chemicals in sunscreen could harm me, so it’s safer to not wear it.

Ever present in discussions around sunscreen is the fear that toxic chemicals could be easily absorbed into the skin, causing serious problems down the line.

This kind of thinking is necessary, as it prompts us to reflect on and study the effects of commonly used chemicals on our bodies. It’s how we learn what ingredients are potentially harmful and informs how we move forward in formulation, like in the case of talc powder’s correlation with uterine cancers meaning a complete abandonment of the ingredient.

That said, too much of this caution can lead to chemophobia, a fear of all chemicals regardless of their safety or effectiveness. In extreme cases, this can lead people to reject modern medicine altogether.

Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD explains that when it comes to sunscreen, there just isn’t any evidence that it poses a threat to our bodies. “The chemicals and sunscreens are not harmful to people at all,” she says.

If that doesn’t help your fear, there are effective mineral sunscreen options.

“You could just wear a zinc oxide/titanium oxide, which is true mineral protection sunscreen,” Dr. Downie explains. “Skin cancer is at an all-time high, and it is critical that everyone wears sunblock every day and that they reapply it multiple times a day, regardless of what race or time of year it is.”

Myth: My sunscreen is waterproof, so I don’t have to reapply as often.

Let’s start at the beginning: there’s no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen. “No sunscreen is fully waterproof,” Dr. Saad explains. “The FDA actually prohibits the terms ‘waterproof’ and ‘sweatproof,’ on sunscreen labels for this reason.”

Instead, you’ll see terms that indicate if the sunscreen is resistant to water. “The terms ‘water-resistant’ or ‘sweat-resistant’ indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when you are swimming or sweating,” Dr. Saad says. “Products that have earned The Skin Cancer Foundation’s ‘Active’ seal are all water-resistant.”

Whether or not your sunscreen is marked as “water-resistant,” you should get into the habit of reapplying after swimming or sweating. Just make sure to get your skin dry first.

“If you go swimming, you need to reapply sunscreen after fully toweling off,” Dr. Saad explains. “You should also towel off and reapply after sweating heavily.”

Myth: My cosmetics have SPF in them, so I don’t need a separate sunscreen product.

Multitasking products are all the rage, and you might have gotten used to seeing moisturizer or foundation with an advertised SPF. There’s nothing wrong with using these for supplemental protection, but relying on them solely is the wrong move.

“Using a foundation or primer with sunscreen ingredients is a great way to bump up your sun protection, but you shouldn’t rely on these products for adequate sun protection,” Dr. Saad explains. “Most cosmetic formulas lack enough protection against UVA rays. For optimal coverage, apply sunscreen under your makeup.”

Additionally, you’re likely never going to use the generous amount of product that would be necessary for it to work as sun protection. It would be an expensive waste to pack on foundation for its SPF, rather than using a standalone sunscreen.

If you don’t spend more than few minutes in the sun, you can get away with using some multitasking products, but you’ll need to apply them liberally enough to provide real protection. Still, if you’re out for much longer than a few minutes, you’ll need real sunscreen.

“Many moisturizers include broad-spectrum sunscreen ingredients and are SPF 15 or greater, which is sufficient for everyday activities with a few minutes here and there in the sun,” Dr. Saad explains. “However, if you work outside or spend a lot of time outdoors, you need a stronger (SPF 30 or higher), water-resistant sunscreen.”

Myth: Sunscreen is a major cause of coral bleaching, so it’s better to avoid using it.

Studies have shown that the chemicals in sunscreen do enter our waterways and the ocean. When that happens, those chemicals do have an effect on the environment they’re entering, and it isn’t exactly beneficial.

These chemicals can stunt green algae growth and lead to coral bleaching or death in laboratory conditions. The key phrase is laboratory conditions.

Australian pharmaceutical chemist and associate professor for the Sydney Pharmacy School of the University of Sydney, Nial Wheate, PhD, explains that you just won’t find concentrations of sunscreen that high out in the real world. “Studies like these are usually conducted under artificial conditions which can’t account for natural processes,” Dr. Wheate explains. “They usually don’t account for the breakdown of the chemicals by sunlight or dilution through water flow and tides. These tests also use sunscreen concentrations up to thousands of times higher—milligrams per liter—compared to real world contamination levels found in collected samples.”

Really, the vast majority of coral bleaching is caused by the rising ocean temperatures, not sunscreen. And it’s, again, climate change that is primarily responsible for disruptions in algae blooms, as toxic blue-green algae love warmer waters.

About 60% of the world’s coral is affected by bleaching to some extent, and almost all of it can be traced back to climate change, or pollution from herbicides and pesticides—not sunscreen.

Myth: I only need to wear sunscreen in the summer, when I am planning to spend a lot of time outside.

You probably spend the most time outside during the warmer months, but that certainly isn’t the only time you need sunscreen.

New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD explains that sun protection is an all-year issue. “The truth is that UV rays are present every day all year round and incidental exposure counts the same as intentional exposure,” Dr. Day says. “This is why you need to apply proper SPF every single day.

In truth, every time you step outside, regardless of the weather, you are being impacted by the sun.

“I often see the worst sunburns in the spring, just as the weather is warming up and everyone is excited to be outdoors but isn’t thinking about sunscreen just yet,” Dr. Day explains. “Also on cloudy days, when there is a cooling breeze and few to no visible sun rays, people don’t think they need sun protection. But the clouds only block about 20% of UV rays, so the extended time outdoors plus the exposure without proper protection leads to sunburns and the accompanying sun damage.”

Myth: Sunscreen is all I need to stay protected from the sun.

The truth is, UV rays can cause damage in a lot of places we don’t put typically put sunscreen and some places we can’t put sunscreen.

Skin cancer commonly occurs on the scalp and ears, and you can even sunburn your eyes.

“No single sun protection method can protect you perfectly, which is why The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a multi-pronged sun protection strategy,” Dr. Saadd explains. “Clothing is the first line of defense against the sun, providing consistent protection that doesn’t wear off over time or shift depending on the time of day. Don’t forget a hat and UV-blocking sunglasses!”

And yes, sunscreen is a huge part of staying safe.

“Applying sunscreen to any exposed parts of the body is also key for sun protection,” Dr. Saad says. “The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 or higher for daily use, and 30 or higher for extended time outdoors.”

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