To address the confusion (and the burns), I decided to revisit some of those sun myths that I found to be false only after it was too late.
1. You cannot get a sunburn if it’s cloudy out.
Sunlight consists of two types of harmful ultraviolet radiation: UVB, which is the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer, and UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin, is responsible for the sun’s aging effects, and may contribute to cancer. UVB is only partially blocked by clouds and fog, so you can still get burned on an overcast day. And while the amount of UVB in sunlight can vary by season, location, and time of day, UVA is always present during daylight hours. So even if your face doesn’t end up looking like a lobster, you’re still getting sun rays and therefore, skin damage.
2. Using sunscreen is all the sun protection you need.
Though sunscreen should always be used when outdoors, it’s an imperfect substitute for avoiding the sun altogether. The current rating system we are all familiar with, Sun Protection Factor (SPF), measures a product’s ability to provide UVB protection, not UVA. It is therefore important to look for a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that protects against both. Even then, sunscreen will not completely protect you all day. For example, an SPF 15 is supposed to protect you fifteen times more than your natural protection. If you can stay in the sun ten minutes before you are burned, SPF 15 will protect you 150 minutes, or about two hours.
Besides reapplying often, a better way to avoid sun damage is to seek shade during those extremely hot and sunny parts of the day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the American Academy of Dermatologists) and wear protective clothing. Thickly woven materials are better than light, thin ones, and baseball hats, though a good choice, are not as good as wide brimmed hats, which protect the ears and eyes better. However, avoiding the sun during summertime and wearing thick clothes in hot humid weather isn’t always feasible, or comfortable. Hence, sunscreen.
3. All sunscreens are created equal.
Part of the controversy over the Environmental Working Group’s findings had to do with chemical versus physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain compounds, like oxybenzone, which absorb the UV rays, while physical sunscreens have a physical barrier, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which deflect the rays. Although the Food and Drug Administration and the American Skin Foundation think differently, the Environmental Working Group contends that the chemicals in sunscreens can break down within a few hours and may be absorbed by the skin, causing hormonal problems.
Whichever sunscreen you choose, it’s important to ensure it is broad spectrum. Since no one chemical blocks both UVA and UVB, sunscreens usually contain a mix of chemicals to provide protection against both. On the other hand, physical sunblocks (that is, those with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) always provide broad spectrum.
4. Tanning beds are safer than the sun and a great way to get a base tan before going on vacation.
Many people like to head to a tanning bed before a big trip to the tropics, thinking that a “base” tan will prevent them from being burned on the islands. Though it seems as if being tan actually does prevent us from burning, tanning is not protective. The darkening of the skin that we call tan is actually the result of melanin production as a response to injury. Although a tan provides an SPF of two to four, the darkening of our skin is a result of DNA damage. While some think that because tanning beds use mostly UVA rays they are safer than the sun, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has linked sunbed tanning to melanoma among young people. Having dark skin does lower the risk of melanoma, but it is naturally dark skin that has this benefit, not the acquired kind. And people with dark skin can still get skin cancer.
5. If you are diagnosed with skin cancer, you have it.
Though skin cancer is reportedly on the rise, it may actually be due to a higher rate of biopsies, rather than higher incidence of cancer. A recent study by an epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs indicated that doctors are performing more biopsies than they did six years ago, resulting in an increase in the number of melanoma cases. However, there have not been a corresponding number of deaths from melanoma, leading the author to conclude that doctors may be erroneously diagnosing melanoma or diagnosing a cancer that would have never progressed to fatality. If you are diagnosed—especially with the more serious form of skin cancer, melanoma—it may be a good idea to get a second opinion.
6. Sweat-proof and waterproof sunscreen will stay on through sweat and water.
I‘ve been in and out of the water and realized that after about an hour, waterproof sunscreen does not work very well. Even the so-called water resistant sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after about eighty minutes in the water. If you’re perspiring heavily, you’re also liable to wipe some of the sunscreen off when you rub down your forehead with your hand or a towel. Since they will not last all day, a safe bet is to reapply sunscreen every two to three hours.
I like the outdoors too much to avoid it during the hours of ten to four, but I like my skin too much not to protect it when I go out. Though reports may banter over how to best do this, common sense and vigilance, along with a broad spectrum sunscreen, may be the best protection.