Here's a sobering fact: basal cell carcinoma is the number-one type of cancer in the United States right now. With summer in full swing, it’s more important than ever to have sun safety top of mind. We’ve got you covered when it comes to all things sun and skin here at Byrdie HQ, whether you’re curious about the best SPF products on the market or what it’s really like to get a skin check.
We all know we're supposed to wear sunscreen. It's a touted non-negotiable in skincare, yet so many of us are still getting things wrong when it comes to understanding SPF and correctly applying sun protection. It can be overwhelming to sift through the countless sunscreen options available on the market boasting a range of SPF levels and varying ingredients. Even once we have recommended products with SPF in hand, misunderstandings can lead to misuse (or making excuses to skimp on usage)—ultimately not doing our skin any favors.
Sunscreen is your first line of defense against the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays that can damage skin and even lead to skin cancer. If you want to protect your skin, it's important to know the facts about SPF. To set the record straight in time for summer, we had skin experts call out the SPF myths they want you to stop believing.
"I applied sunscreen in the morning so I should be set for the whole day."
"Sunscreens generally only last about 90-120 minutes, especially if they are chemical blockers that breakdown after exposure to UV light," notes board-certified dermatologist Ainah Tan, MD, FAAD, who advises to always read the instructions on your particular product. "It is important to remember to re-apply, especially if you are outdoors and sweating or playing water sports."
"SPF 100 provides double the protection of SPF 50."
"SPF stands for 'Sun Protection Factor,' which gives you an idea of how long you can stay in the sun without a sunburn under the protection of the sunscreen," explains scientist, anti-aging authority, and Bluelene founder Kan Cao, PhD. For example, if you normally get a sunburn after 20 minutes on the beach with an SPF 15 sunscreen, you may stay on the beach for 20 minutes times 15, or 300 minutes (5 hours) without developing a sunburn. "The high SPF will only extend the time of the protection but does not provide significantly more protection at a particular moment," Cao clarifies. "Instead, a higher SPF usually comes with more concentrated chemicals, which may induce undesired side effects. We recommend applying SPF 15 sunscreen every other hour."
"The higher the SPF, the more protection from all UV radiation"
"SPF only measures sunburns caused by UVB radiations, which are shorter wavelength UV rays that penetrate the epidermis and cause damages and mutations on surface skin cells," explains Cao. "There is another type of UV ray, called UVA, which have a longer wavelength and can reach the deeper layer of skin and trigger photo-aging. Photo-aging is the leading cause of deep wrinkles, loose and sagging skin." Cao recommends using an antioxidant-rich lotion or cream before applying any sunscreen products.
Most sunscreens do not provide sufficient UVA protection, especially for people who tend to stay in the sun for an extended amount of time after applying a high SPF sunscreen. "It is important to look for a sunscreen that has broad-spectrum protection," advises Tan. "Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVB and UVA." Both Cao and Tan recommend applying an SPF 15 to 30 for daily use and SPF 50 for a beach day or other outdoor activities.
"I have a vitamin D deficiency, therefore I need sun."
"Having a tan does not indicate that you have sufficient levels of vitamin D," corrects esthetician and master facialist Sarah Akram. "You only need 10 to 15 minutes of sun daily before your body reaches maximum production of vitamin D and then stops. The best way to have adequate vitamin D levels is through diet, supplements, and sun—in moderation."
"My skin is naturally dark, therefore I don't need SPF."
"This is a major misconception," observes Akram. "In fact, sunscreen is very important for all skin types to prevent skin cancer as well as premature aging damage caused by the sun. Even if you have a darker complexion, you can still be genetically susceptible to skin cancer."
"Sunscreen ingredients are dangerous and cause cancer."
"A recent study showed that there is some systemic absorption of chemical sunscreen ingredients, but there is no current data to suggest that this causes cancer or is dangerous," Tan clarifies. "We know that anything that is applied on the skin can be absorbed into the body, so that is why it is important to know what you are putting on your skin and to use high-quality ingredients."
"Some sunscreens have been under scrutiny lately because of harsh chemical ingredients, however, there are plenty of physical block sunscreens on the market with ingredients that protect your skin and without compromising your health," notes Akram. Both Tan and Akram recommend using mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunscreens which are also broad spectrum. "We need to remember that the sun is the true enemy here and we still need to protect our skin responsibly," underscores Akram.
"UV light is already known to cause skin cancer, such as melanoma, and the consequences of skin cancer can be devastating," reminds Tan. "Therefore, board-certified dermatologists still recommend the use of sunscreen as well as sun protective clothing to minimize the harmful effects of sun exposure."
"I don't use sunscreen because they are all oily and cause me to break out."
"Not all sunscreens are equal," says Tan. "While some products are absolutely more oily or have preservatives that may cause allergic reactions, there are some really great products out there." Tan's personal favorites are EltaMD Clear Tinted Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF46 (which she says provides clean finish without the oiliness) and Colorscience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield. Additionally, there are sunscreens that are more compact-based, similar to a foundation, like Avène High Protection Tinted Compact SPF 50, or even have a mousse finish, like Colorscience Sunforgettable Total Protection Body Shield SPF 50.
"Most damage happens during childhood."
"While it is possible to have double the risk of melanoma if you had a couple of blistering sunburns in your younger years, there have been studies that say only 25 percent of damage happens before the age of 18," explains Akram. That still leaves 75 percent of damage to occur in adulthood. "There is always time to prevent further damage to your skin," says Tan. "Most skin cancers result from an accumulation of sun exposure or from high-intensity exposure to the sun. Aside from decreasing your chances of skin cancer in the future, decreasing sun exposure helps prevent thinning of the skin, creation of sunspots, and minimizing wrinkles."
"It's good to get a base tan before a vacation."
"This is probably one of the biggest sun care myths," admits Akram. "Getting a base tan before going on a holiday in the sun will not prevent you from getting a sunburn. If you are spending the day on the beach, the best way to prevent getting a burn is to make sure you re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours—sooner if you are in and out of the water."
"Getting some sun helps my acne/skin health/redness so I don't use sunscreen."
"While in the short term, skin may look better with sun exposure—or even tanning bed use—overall, not using sun protection increases the risk of skin cancer, sun spots, and wrinkles," warns Tan. "Judicious sun exposure can be done—about 15-30 min per day—to help the production of vitamin D, but laying out for hours is not recommended."
"I don't need to wear SPF on a cloudy day."
"Clouds do not block the UV rays that cause aging and skin cancer so it is still just as important to use your physical block sunscreen on a cloudy day," reminds Akram.
Now here are the best face sunscreens of 2019.
American Cancer Society. Key statistics for basal and squamous cell skin cancers. Updated January 8, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administraton. Sunscreen: how to help protect your skin from the sun. Updated August 29, 2019.
Coelho SG, Rua D, Miller SA, Agrawal A. Suboptimal UVA attenuation by broad spectrum sunscreens under outdoor solar conditions contributes to lifetime UVA burden. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2020;36(1):42‐52. doi:10.1111/phpp.12503