The Top Myths About Sun Protection


Don’t believe these myths about SPF. (Photo: David Burton - Trunk Archive)

When the sun is strong, most of us have the common sense to apply (and reapply) sunscreen, but there are so many misconceptions about SPF. We asked Alicia Barba, MD, board-certified dermatologist, and Stephen Lynch, PhD., research and innovation at SkinCeuticals, to set the record straight on some sunscreen myths so we can all have a safe, happy summer.

Myth: Dark skin doesn’t need sunscreen/can’t get melanoma

You might laugh, but this misconception causes a lot of harm. “Darker skin tones are less prone to skin cancer, but this myth means signs are ignored until there’s a bleeding lesion so far advanced that chances of survival are diminished,” says Barba, who urges everyone, regardless of skin tone, to use sunscreen and have their skin checked regularly.

Myth: A base tan protects you

Just like the myth that you have to burn once to prevent burning all summer, this is also wrong. Just because you can tan doesn’t mean you should. “A base tan is nature’s way of producing sun protection because you’ve been irradiated,” says Barba. “However, it doesn’t lessen your risk of skin cancer, and you’ll age your skin exponentially with constant sun tanning.”

Myth: You don’t need to use sunscreen inside

Barba’s advice is simple: All contact with sunlight requires protection. “Any exposure, from an office or car window to walking from building to building, requires SPF.”

Myth: The number on sunscreen is proportionate to the number of minutes of sun protection

Wrong again! The number has nothing to do with exposure time — it’s about the strength of protection against the sun’s harmful rays. “As defined by the FDA, Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin relative to unprotected skin,” says Lynch. “It’s a measure of protection a given product provides against UVB-induced damage.”

Here’s how to do the math — it’s simple, we swear: SPF 15 allows 1/15 of harmful UVB rays to reach the skin. The remaining 14/15 means you’re protecting against 93% of UVB radiation. So SPF 30 blocks 97% and SPF 50 prevents 98%.

Myth: The SPF in makeup is enough

Think about the amount of sunscreen you apply at the beach and how you cover every inch of skin from ear to ear, neck to hairline. We’re guessing you’re not as heavy handed with your makeup application, so it’s just not enough. “It’s good enough to cover you when you’re walking from your car to work,” says Barba. “If you’re outside longer than 15 minutes, you need higher SPF and must reapply.”

Myth: One application of sunscreen in the morning is enough for the whole day

It turns out reapplying is just as important as the first coat. According to Barba, sunscreen gets consumed once the light hits it, which means you have to reapply regularly to remain protected. “If you apply in the morning and are outside for three hours, that protection is gone.”

Myth: You don’t need sunscreen during off-peak hours

According to Barba, the sun’s powerful rays beam can cause damage no matter what time it is. Therefore, if you’re outside at any point for longer than 15 minutes, you need to lather up with some SPF. “You can still get burned at 8 am as well as after 4 pm,” she says.

Myth: Sunscreen on your face, arms, back, and legs is enough

That’s a great start, but there are a few areas our good doctor would like to add to your SPF coverage strategy, including the ears, nose, hands and the tops of your feet. Also, remember your scalp, especially if you have thinning or less hair. “I tell patients who are balding to wear a hat,” says Barba.

Myth: Melanoma is only caused by sun exposure

Not to scare you (OK, maybe a little,) but melanoma can strike without sun exposure, which makes regular skin checks so incredibly vital. “Melanoma between fingers and toes, common in people of color, is typically hereditary,” says Barba. This makes regular mole checks vital for places the sun never shines. “Sun exposure makes the risk higher, but isn’t always the main factor.”

So, grab that sunscreen and enjoy a little fun in the sun. Just remember these tips and tricks to maximize your sun protection so you can enjoy years and years of easy summers, happy and healthy, in the skin you’re in.


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