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Shedding Light on 7 Sunscreen Myths

Dermatologists debunk common misunderstandings about sunscreen.

By Katrina Woznicki

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD

WebMD Feature

If you are hazy on sunscreens and how to use them, your health could be on the line. Being out in the sun without proper protection from ultraviolet light exposure can increase your risk for sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed every year.

There are two types of ultraviolet light: UVB, which causes sunburn, and UVA, which penetrates the skin more deeply and can cause wrinkles. Both UVB and UVA rays can lead to skin cancer.

Dermatologists Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, of New York University Langone Medical Center and dermatologist James Spencer, MD, of St. Petersburg, Fla., clear up myths about sunscreen.

Sunscreen Myth #1: I can skip it.

Maybe you think you can pass on sunscreen because you don't bask in the sun. But sunscreen is not just for sun worshippers. "If you're going to be outdoors," Stein says, "you should wear sunscreen. Even when it's cloudy outside, you can still get sunburn through cloud cover."

Or if you think your naturally dark skin doesn't need sunscreen, think again. "People with darker skin are definitely less likely to burn," Stein says. "But they can still burn and should wear some form of sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB."

If you've got a tan, either from the sun or a tanning bed, Stein says it means your skin is damaged. "A tan," she says, "may give you a little bit of protection, but you can still burn."

She also says, "There's a myth out there you should tan before going on vacation because it will protect you from getting burned. That's just not true. Also, the tan you get from a tanning bed doesn't protect you. It's a different kind of tan because it's from high amounts of UVA, which darkens the skin quickly." 

And if you skip sunscreen because you don't like how it feels on your skin, shop around. "There are so many sunscreens on the market," Spencer says. "Don't give up."

Got sensitive skin? "You can try ones marked 'sensitive skin,' which often are the ones that have a physical blocker such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in them," Stein says.

Spencer agrees. "People with sensitive skin tend to do better with the physical blocks," he says.

Stein notes that sunscreens labeled for babies or children are often the same as the "sensitive skin" versions of those products, just repackaged for a different age group. Stein also has other tips for people with sensitive skin:

  • Do a test spot. "If you're concerned about a new sunscreen, you can first try it on the inside of your arm before you use it on your face or put it all over your body," she says.
  • Wear protective clothing. "Clothing and a hat are even better than sunscreen," Stein says. "The more covered up you are, the less sunscreen you need."

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