A dermatologist clarifies what you need to know about sunscreen application, SPF, tan lines, and other not-so-true sun protection notions

By Melanie Rud Chadwick
Corbis Images

By this point in the summer, you've nailed your sunscreen M.O...or have you? We asked a top dermatologist to help us debunk some of the most common sun protection myths out there. Read on to step up your sun smarts and ensure your skin is properly safeguarded for the rest of the season.

Myth #1: I only need to wear sunscreen when I'm spending a day at the beach or pool.

Repeat after us: Sun protection is non-negotiable 365 days a year, no matter where you are, what you're doing, or what the weather. "Most of the sun exposure people get is unintentional and incidental," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "They don't realize that it's during short moments spent outdoors-their commute to work, running errands-that the sun is damaging their skin."

That damage is cumulative; short bursts of time spent sans sunscreen have dangerous and long-lasting effects. And while burning UVB rays are stronger in the summer, UVA rays (which cause aging and skin cancer) are the same strength year-round and penetrate even on a cloudy day. Luckily, the solution is simple. Make sunscreen a daily part of your routine, covering both your face and any other exposed areas, like your neck, chest, and hands, all common spots people forget to protect, according to Zeichner. (Your skin is not the only thing that can suffer during summer. Here's Your Summer Hair Rescue Guide to help maintain healthy strands all season.)

Myth #2: SPF 30 offers twice as much protection as SPF 15.

It seems counterintuitive, but standard math principles don't apply when it comes to SPF numbers. "An SPF 15 blocks 94 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 30 block 97 percent," explains Zeichner. The increase in protection once you go above an SPF 30 is only incremental, so in this case, bigger isn't necessarily better.

That being said, Zeichner says it is smart to err higher, opting for SPF 30 for day-to-day use (this is also the recommendation of the American Academy of Dermatology) and SPF 50 when you're at the beach or pool. "In order to get the level of protection labeled on the bottle, you need to both apply an adequate amount and reapply consistently, which most people don't do," he says. "By choosing a higher SPF, you're helping compensate for these discrepancies."

Myth #3: Dark skin can't get sunburned.

Ethnicities with darker skin aren't exempt from the daily sunscreen rule. "Skin pigment only offers the equivalent of an SPF 4," explains Zeichner. Aside from burning, there's also the universal risk of aging and skin cancer, since UVA rays affect skin equally, regardless of color. The bottom line: All skin tones and types are susceptible to sun damage and need to be vigilant about protection.

Myth #4: I'm safe if I sit in the shade.

Granted, sitting in the shade is a better option than sitting under direct sun, but it's not a substitute for sunscreen, cautions Zeichner. "UV rays reflect off the surfaces around you, especially when you're near a body of water." In other words, the rays are reaching you, even under an umbrella. Rather than relying solely on shade, consider it only a part of your sun protection arsenal. "Seek shade, wear protective clothing, and, of course, be diligent about sunscreen application," advises Zeichner. (However, you can minimize your sun exposure by using these Smart SPF Products that Aren't Sunscreen.)

Myth #5: It's better to use a cream sunscreen than a spray.

All sunscreen formulas-creams, lotions, sprays, sticks-will work equally well if used correctly, according to Zeichner. But you can't just spray a cloud of sunscreen across your body or haphazardly swipe on a stick: "You have to put a little concerted effort into your application technique," he adds.

Consider his helpful guidelines: For sprays, hold the bottle an inch away from your body and spray for one to two seconds per area, or until skin is glistening, then rub in thoroughly. Prefer sticks? Rub back and forth across each spot four times to deposit an adequate amount of product. (Need a sunscreen? Here, 20 Sun Products to Help Protect Your Skin.)

Myth #6: My makeup has SPF in it so I don't need to use a separate sunscreen.

It's smart to use makeup with SPF, but think of it as a second line of defense, rather than your sole source of sun protection. Why? For starters, you're likely not applying your foundation or powder in an even layer across your entire face, says Zeichner. Secondly, it would take a lot of makeup to get the level of SPF noted of the bottle, and most women simply aren't wearing that much, he adds. Moisturizer with sunscreen is OK, given that you use enough (a nickel-size amount for your face).

Myth #7: I know sunburns are dangerous, but getting a tan is fine.

A lobster red hue isn't the only indication of damaged skin. If you think achieving that gorgeous glow isn't a problem, guess again. "Any change in skin color-whether it's turning red or just darker-is an indication of sun damage," says Zeichner. Consider tan lines a warning sign that it's time to step up your sun protection, stat.

Myth #8: The SPF number is the only thing I need to look at when buying sunscreen.

There's a plethora of information to be found on a sunscreen label, though it can be confusing for most (in a recent study published online by JAMA Dermatology, only 43 percent of people understood the definition of the SPF value). To aid in your sunscreen selection process, we asked Zeichner to walk us through what to look for...and how to understand what you're looking at.


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