Shedding Light on 7 Sunscreen Myths

Dermatologists debunk common misunderstandings about sunscreen.

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on November 14, 2012

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 c ancer.

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."

Sunscreen Myth #2: The SPF in my makeup is enough.

Some women may rely on sunscreen in their makeup. But you might need more than that.

"If you use foundation, a few spots of sunscreen on your face isn't going to be enough out in the sun," Stein says. "You should wear at least an SPF of 30. The easiest approach is to use a facial moisturizer that already has sunscreen in it."

It's fine to have sunscreen in your makeup, but consider it an extra layer, not your main safeguard.

Sunscreen Myth #3: All sunscreens are the same.

Not so. Sunscreens can differ in the way they protect your skin. Some use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to filter out UVA and UVB rays. Others use chemicals such as avobenzone to do the job.

Newer active ingredients include Helioplex and Meroxyl SX.

"Dermatologists like Helioplex and meroxyl because these ingredients are photostabilized, which means they give you good UVA and UVB protection," Stein says. "And they're more stable so they won't break down as quickly."

What offers the best protection? That's a matter of debate.

The Environmental Working Group has reported that some sunscreen products don’t adequately protect the skin, but the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, has disputed that. Consumer Reports also reviews and rates sunscreens.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should look for a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher that provides broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB light.

The FDA recommends using a sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 or higher that says "broad spectrum" on the label.

Sunscreen Myth #4: A little sunscreen will see me through the day.

"The general principle is to reapply every two to four hours," Spencer says. "Sunscreen does go away with time."

Don't be stingy when you're putting it on yourself or your children. "To cover your whole body, you would have to fill a shot glass," Stein says. "A good way to conserve sunscreen is to cover up with clothing. Clothes are more reliable than sunscreen -- you don't have to worry about forgetting about it or reapplying it."

If you get into the water, you may need to reapply more often.

The FDA doesn't allow sunscreen makers to claim that their products are "waterproof" or "sweatproof," or identify their products as "sunblocks" because, the FDA says, those claims overstate their effectiveness. Sunscreens can claim that they are "water resistant," but they have to specify how long that lasts.

You may also want to check on whether your prescriptions make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Certain blood pressure medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and so can some antibiotics, such as doxycycline, which is an oral antibiotic used to treat acne. Be sure to talk to your doctor about this," Stein says.

Sunscreen Myth #5: I put sunscreen on my face, arms, leg, back, and neck -- so I'm set.

Not so fast. You may have overlooked some key areas.

"The ears and the back of the neck are commonly neglected," Stein says. "You can actually get sunburn on your scalp, so wearing a hat is a good way to get protection. It will also shade your face, and that will give you good face protection."

Don't forget about your lips. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30.

Sunscreen Myth #6: Lotions, sprays, or stick sunscreens work differently.

"There are no real major differences; these are just vehicles for the sunscreen and it depends on what the consumer likes," Spencer says.

"Men often do better with alcohol-based sprays because they don't like greasy products. Women often do better with lotions and creamier products because they like the moisturizing effect," Spencer says. "There are many different sunscreen products to choose from. What's most important is compliance -- if you like the product, you're more likely to use it."

Whatever kind of sunscreen you choose, the American Academy of Dermatology says to put it on dry skin 15-30 minutes before you go outside.

Sunscreen Myth #7: Last year's bottle is still OK.

"You should use enough so that you're not using the same bottle summer after summer. If you're doing it right, you're not going to have leftovers next year," Stein says.

Check the expiration date on your sunscreen bottle.

"Some sunscreens break down quickly, especially the ones that give you UVA protection. So it shouldn't sit in your bathroom cabinet for too long," Stein says.

Spencer discloses that he has consulted for L'Oreal. Stein reports no disclosures.

Show Sources


Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center, New York.

James Spencer, MD, a private practicing physician in St. Petersburg, Fla. and member, American Academy of Dermatology. Disclosure: Consultant for L'Oreal.

WebMD Health News: "How Safe and Effective are Sunscreens?"

Consumer Reports: "Best Sunscreens for Your Summer."

WebMD Health News: "FDA Wrapping Up Sunscreen Label Changes."

FDA: "FDA Aims to Upgrade Sunscreen Labeling."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Facts About Sunscreens."

WebMD Health News: "Group Calls Some Sunscreens 'Snake Oil.'"

WebMD Health News: "Best Sunscreens: A Consumer Reports Ranking."

News release, FDA.

FDA: "Sunscreen."

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