Sunscreen Facts: The Truth About Sun Protection & SPF

Patricia A. Lucey, MD | Inova

Patricia Lucey, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center. She has a special interest in the diagnosis and management of melanoma and other skin cancers.

The summer sun is a welcome sight after a long winter. But sunshine has a dark side.

Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is the No. 1 cause of skin cancer. And the best way to protect yourself against UV rays? Sunscreen.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about sunscreen floating around out there. What’s the truth about sun protection? Let’s break down the top 10 biggest sunscreen myths.

Sunscreen Facts: The Truth About Sun Protection & SPF | Inova

1. Myth: The sun is natural — and a little bit is good for you.

Fact: The sun may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Sun exposure causes wrinkles, discoloration and premature aging. It also causes skin cancer. There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer). The majority of BCC and SCC is caused by UV exposure. And 8 out of 10 cases of melanoma are caused by sunlight. In 2021, an estimated 7,180 people will die of melanoma.

2. Myth: I only need sunscreen if I’m going outside on a sunny day.

Fact: Sunscreen isn’t just something you need for a day at the beach. UV light is harmful in all seasons, on cloudy days, and even when you’re exposed through a window. In fact, dermatologists diagnose more skin cancers on the left side of the face than the right. Why? People are often exposed through their car windows while driving. To protect yourself from sun damage, you should use sunscreen every day, on all exposed skin.

3. Myth: I heard sunscreen doesn’t prevent against melanoma.

Fact: Older research showed sunscreen could protect people from BCCs and SCCs. But the story wasn’t entirely clear for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. In the past, however, sunscreens mainly protected against a type of sunlight known as UVB rays. We now know that both UVB and UVA rays contribute to melanoma. And broad-spectrum sunscreen (which protects against UVA and UVB) is an effective way to lower the odds of developing melanoma.

4. Myth: I need sunscreen to get my vitamin D.

Fact: Vitamin D is an important nutrient for human health. It’s true that the body can make it when the skin is exposed to UV rays. But after just 15 minutes in the sun, your vitamin D receptors are fully saturated. After that point, you won’t be able to make any more Vitamin D from the sun. If you must rely on the sun to get your D fix, make sure to put on sunscreen after 15 minutes. Better yet, try to get your vitamin D from foods or supplements. You’ll get all the benefits of the vitamin without the increased skin cancer risk.

5: Myth: Getting a “base tan” protects me from sun damage.

Fact: Some people believe that going to tanning beds is a good way to protect themselves from sunburns and sun damage. But any tan is a sign of DNA damage. Having a so-called “base tan” won’t protect you from further damage if you spend time in the sun. What’s more, tanning beds only contain UVA rays. Sunburns are caused by UVB rays. So getting a base from a tanning bed does nothing to ward off sunburns.

6: Myth: I have dark skin, so I don’t need sunscreen.

Fact: It’s true that people with fair skin are more vulnerable to UV damage, but skin cancer can strike no matter your skin color. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime — a figure that includes people with every possible skin tone. In fact, people with darker skin may not realize they’re experiencing sun damage, since the melanin (pigment) in their darker skin can mask the redness of a sunburn. Plus, melanin doesn’t protect against the type of sun damage that causes premature aging and wrinkles.

7. Myth: Sunscreen doesn’t work for me.

Fact: If you’re using sunscreen and still getting tanned or burned, you’re using it wrong. Sunscreen is rated by its sun protection factor, or SPF. SPF is a measure of how long you can be in the sun before you start to burn. If you wear SPF 30, for example, it should take 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. But most people don’t apply nearly enough to get the full protection listed on the label. Sunscreen that says SPF 30 may be acting more like SPF 15 if you use it too sparingly. To get the full benefit of sunscreen:

  • Apply thickly. Use about an ounce (a shot glass full) for your whole body.
  • Reapply often, especially if you’re swimming or sweating.
  • Choose water-resistant sunscreen if you plan to get wet.
  • Use creams instead of sprays for maximum coverage.

8. Myth: I always have a bad reaction to sunscreen.

Fact: Sunscreen comes in two categories:

  • Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays. Common ingredients are oxybenzone, octinoxate and avobenzone.
  • Physical (mineral) sunscreens block UV rays and deflect them away from the skin. They are often referred to as mineral sunscreens, since they contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Many people can use both types with no trouble. But some people find that chemical sunscreens can irritate their eyes or skin. If you’re sensitive to chemical varieties, look for a physical sunscreen instead. Bonus: Physical options don’t break down as fast, so they don’t need to be reapplied as often.

9. Myth: Sunscreen is full of harmful chemicals.

Fact: Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens. Some research has linked the ingredient to harmful effects in rats. But the animals in those studies were fed large amounts of the chemical. There are no studies that show toxic effects in humans caused by oxybenzone being absorbed through the skin. Still, if you’re wary, there’s an easy fix: Reach for mineral sunscreens instead.

10. Myth: Sunscreen is bad for the environment.

Fact: Studies suggest oxybenzone can harm coral reefs and other sea life. Some tropical locations have banned these sunscreens to protect their reefs. But you can protect yourself and the sea creatures by choosing mineral sunscreen instead. There are also some concerns that spray sunscreens, which use aerosols, cause harmful air pollution. Cream sunscreens are a better option.

It’s easy to find excuses to avoid sunscreen. But those flimsy excuses just don’t hold up to the facts. Once you start using sunscreen every day, it won’t take long for it to become a habit. And that’s one healthy habit you’ll be glad to make.    

Concerned about your skin? Call 571-472-1190 to make an appointment at the Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center.

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