8 Top Sun Safety Myths

All sunscreens are NOT created equal.

By Rachael Bieschke

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Summer wouldn’t be summer without the warmth of the sun’s rays, but too much sun can easily lead to painful burns and, in severe sunburn cases, symptoms like nausea, headache, fever, dizziness and chills.

The secret lies in the dose. A few minutes of sunshine on your bare skin allows your body to produce healthful vitamin D. But after those few minutes are up, getting into the shade or covering up with clothing or a non-chemical sunscreen will protect your skin from unnecessary sun-induced damage. For your protection, and to protect your fun in the sun, be sure you’re aware of these top sun safety myths.

8 Sun Safety Myths: BUSTED!

1. Higher SPFs Give Significantly More Protection

Most people think that an SPF 50 sunscreen will give you more than three times more sun protection than an SPF 15. In reality, a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 will block 97 percent of the sun’s rays; higher SPFs, while more expensive, will block only slightly more of the sun’s rays, but not 100%. The SPF also has no impact on length of protection, which is the same for both low- and high-number SPFs.

2. You Can’t Get Burned if it’s Cloudy

It’s important to protect your skin from the sun even if it’s not particularly sunny outside. On cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays can still penetrate your skin1, and because many people neglect to cover up on cloudy days, this is when some of the worst sunburns occur.

3. My Makeup Has Sunscreen, That’s All I Need

Many makeup products, such as foundation, now contain sunscreen, and this is great, especially if it contains at least an SPF 30. However, you should think of this as an added protective layer, not your main safeguard against the sun. Most women only apply a small amount of foundation to their face in the morning. Not only is this likely not enough sunscreen for adequate protection (and misses your ears, chest, back of neck, and other sunburn-prone areas), but it will likely wear off after a couple of hours. Even if your makeup has an SPF, you should still take additional steps to protect your delicate facial skin from sun damage.

4. It Doesn’t Matter When You Go Out in the Sun

If you’re seeking to avoid a sunburn, you’ll want to avoid excessive sun exposure between 10 am and 2 pm. This is when the sun’s rays are the strongest, so a shorter exposure time may lead to a sunburn faster than other times of day, such as in the late afternoon or early morning. That said, you can still get burned in the morning and early evening hours.

5. You Don’t Need Sunscreen if You Have Dark-Colored Skin

Dark-colored skin will not burn as easily as light-colored skin, but the sun can still lead to skin damage and burns with excessive exposure. You should wear protective clothing, seek shade and consider using a chemical-free sunscreen for sun protection even if you have dark-colored skin.

6. All Sunscreens are Created Equal

Sunscreens typically contain either chemicals, such as oxybenzone, to absorb the sun’s rays or minerals, such as titanium dioxide, that block them. Oxybenzone, present in more than half of sunscreens according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, has been linked to hormone disruptions and cell damage that may lead to cancer.1 Another sunscreen additive, retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A), may speed the development of skin tumors when applied to skin exposed to sunlight. EWG reports:3

“The ideal sunscreen would completely block UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals. It would remain effective on the skin for several hours. It would not form harmful ingredients when degraded by sunlight. It would smell and feel pleasant so that people would use more of it.

No sunscreen meets these goals. Americans must choose between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone system, and “mineral” sunscreens, made with zinc and titanium, often “micronized” or containing nano-particles.”

7. Sunlight Doesn’t Penetrate Through Windows

While UVB rays, which help your body produce vitamin D, are blocked by glass, UVA rays, which penetrate your skin more deeply and may increase your risk of skin cancer, are not. If you spend a significant amount of time exposed to window-filtered sun, your skin could still be damaged as a result (such as during a long commute or if your desk is next to a window).

8. Any Clothing Will Block the Sun’s Rays

The type of clothing matters when it comes to sun safety. Darker and brighter colors will absorb more UV rays than white or pastel shades, while heavier, denser fabrics with tighter weaves will offer more sun protection than thin, lightweight fabrics with a loose weave. A white t-shirt, for instance, will still let in some UV rays, particularly if it’s wet.4

More Tips for Finding a Safe and Effective Sunscreen

You’re ready to go out in the sun … now which sunscreen product is best? EWG has researched this topic extensively and recommends the following tips for choosing a safe sunscreen:5

  • Avoid Spray Sunscreens: There is some concern that these sprays could cause health concerns when inhaled and they make it difficult to determine if your skin is adequately covered. They’ve even been implicated in fires when sprayed near an open flame. Stick to cream sunscreens instead.
  • Avoid Super-High SPFs: SPFs higher than 50 may offer false reassurance that you can stay in the sun longer than is safe. Some of these high-SPF products protect against UVB radiation, which causes burns, but not UVA, which may lead to accelerated skin aging and skin cancer.
  • Avoid Oxybenzone: This common sunscreen chemical mimics the hormone estrogen and easily penetrates the skin, increasing the amount that enters your bloodstream
  • Avoid Retinyl Palmitate: This form of vitamin A may speed the development of skin tumors when used on sun-exposed skin.
  • Avoid Loose Powder Sunscreens: Because of the potential for inhalation, loose powder sunscreens, which often contain titanium or zinc particles, should also be avoided. Inhaled titanium dioxide is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
1. American Academy of Dermatology, Sunscreen FAQs
2. EWG’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens, Nine Surprising Facts About Sunscreens
3. EWG’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens, Nine Surprising Facts About Sunscreens
4. Skin Cancer Foundation, Clothing: Our First Line of Defense
5. EWG Sunscreens