Save Your Skin: Common Sunscreen Myths, Debunked

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 20% of Americans will get skin cancer before age 70. Sunscreen is key to protecting your skin. If you receive just five sunburns, your risk of melanoma doubles. If you apply sunscreen correctly, you should be safe.

But common sunscreen myths can harm your skin in the long run. Have you ever heard that higher SPF lasts longer? Or have you paid more for “waterproof” sunscreen? These are some of the many sunscreen myths that experts have debunked. If you want to protect your skin, keep reading.

Higher SPF Won’t Protect You Longer

Various sunscreen bottles with an SPF of 50 or above sit on a shelf.
Antony Dickson/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
Antony Dickson/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

It seems logical: a higher SPF provides more protection. In reality, SPF 100 is hardly different from SPF 50. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, SPF 30 stops 97% of UV rays, SPF 50 halts 98%, and SPF 100 blocks 99%.

The FDA claims that SPF numbers above 50 are “inherently misleading” because they only make a 1% difference. If that 1% means a lot to you, spend more money on that sunscreen. But remember that you only need SPF 30 to protect your skin.

You Can Still Tan While Wearing Sunscreen

A woman tans on a beach.
JOSE JORDAN/STR/AFP via Getty Images
JOSE JORDAN/STR/AFP via Getty Images

A dangerous myth asserts that you can’t tan while wearing sunscreen. But this isn’t how sunscreens or tans work. SPF guards the skin against UV rays, and you don’t need UV rays to get a tan. Facialist and body-care expert Vanda Serrado emphasizes that you can tan while wearing sunscreen.

This doesn’t make tans safe, however. Sun triggers the DNA to create more melanin, darkening the skin to create a tan. Dermatologist Ted Lain says that excessive sun tanning will harm the skin, even if you wear sunscreen.

A Base Tan Won’t Protect You

A person rubs sunscreen on a woman's back.
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

A common myth says that a base tan will protect your skin against the sun. But this is not true. According to Scientific American, several studies confirm that a base tan does not guard your skin. At most, a tan provides an SPF of three–not enough to remove the risk of cancer.

Remember, you need an SPF of at least 30 to help prevent cancer. A solid sunscreen will work much better than a tan. Plus, Terry Slevin, a research director Cancer Council WA, emphasizes that no skin tone is immune to cancer. No matter your skin color, wear sunscreen!

Don’t Worry–Sunscreen Won’t Stop Vitamin D

Vitamin D3 supplements are next to a bottle.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Because sunscreen blocks UV rays, some people assume that it stops vitamin D, too. But studies do not agree. In 2019, research in the British Journal of Dermatology determined that people who wear sunscreen still get “excellent vitamin D synthesis.”

Why doesn’t sunscreen block vitamin D? Scientists aren’t entirely sure. Harvard Health Publishing theorizes that sunscreen does not block all UV rays, so some vitamins get through. Perhaps UV rays aren’t necessary for vitamin D. Studies show no difference in vitamin D levels between someone who wears sunscreen and someone who doesn’t.

You Need More Than One Thin Coat

A person rubs two lines of sunscreen on her arm.
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

A quick layer of sunscreen isn’t enough for most adults. The American Academy of Dermatology asserts that most people only apply 25% to 50% of the amount that they need. Use one ounce for your body–enough to fill up one shot glass or two tablespoons.

How much do you need on your face? Dermatologist Elizabeth K. Hale recommends pouring a nickel-sized drop of sunscreen for your face. If you have a sunscreen spray, stick, or gel, you may need to coat yourself a couple of times.

There Is No Such Thing As “Waterproof” Sunscreen

A tennis player sprays sunscreen on her arm.
STR/AFP via Getty Images
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Many sports sunscreens advertise themselves as “water-resistant,” which some people interpret as waterproof. But according to the FDA, there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. If you go swimming, your sunscreen will wash off in a short amount of time.

The term “water-resistant” tells people how long sunscreen lasts in the water. Most resistant sunscreen lasts for 40 minutes in the water; “very water-resistant” sunscreens can last up to 80 minutes. The takeaway: when you go swimming, you need to reapply sunscreen more often.

You’re Probably Not Allergic To All Sunscreen

A person chooses a bottle of sunscreen off of a supermarket shelf.
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Some people believe that they’re allergic to sunscreen. More accurately, they are allergic to a certain ingredient inside of the sunscreen. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, these are the most common allergins in sunscreen: fragrances, cinnamates, dibenzoyl methane, benzophenone-3, and oxybenzone.

If you experience an allergic reaction to sunscreen, visit your doctor or allergist. Not all sunscreens contain the same ingredients. Determine what you’re allergic to, and hunt down sunscreens without that ingredient. Whatever you do, don’t forsake sunscreen completely. It could save your skin!

Windows Don’t Block Out The Sun

The sun shines through the window of a bus.
Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images
Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

When you’re inside or in the car, you don’t need sunscreen–right? Wrong. Standard windows can block some UVB rays, but not UVA rays, says dermatologist Joyce Park. UVA rays dig deeper into the skin and can do just as much damage as UVB, if not more.

Dermatologist Harold Lancer gave CNN a quick tip: If you can see where you’re walking without a flashlight, you need sunscreen. Natural light can still damage your skin in large quantities. If you sit next to a window, even in the car, you need to apply sunscreen first.

Yes, You Need To Let Sunscreen Soak In

A man rubs sunscreen on his face.
James D. Morgan/Getty Images
James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Because water reflects UV rays, sunscreen is especially important for swimmers. But if you slather on sunscreen and immediately dive in, you might as well not wear sunscreen at all. If you don’t let it soak in, it’ll wash right off, says dermatologist Lisa Garner.

Queensland Health recommends waiting for 20 minutes before you jump into the water. The same goes for exercise; if you’re going to be sweating, let your sunscreen soak in. Reapply sunscreen every hour when you’re wet or in the water.

Sunscreen Disintegrates In The Sun

A woman hands out free sunscreen bottles at a parade.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many people leave sunscreen bottles in their car or out in the sun. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Fredric S. Brandt told Insider that sunscreen breaks down in high heat. The more you keep a bottle in the sun, the more it will degrade. Even 77 °F is enough to ruin your sunscreen.

You don’t want to leave sunscreen in the car or at the bottom of your beach bag. Store it in a cool, dry place–in your cooler if you need to. If you store your sunscreen correctly, it’ll last longer.

Most Makeup SPF Is Not Enough

A woman applies face makeup.
Mimi Saputra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
James MacDonald/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Some people think that makeup products have enough SPF to protect their faces. But this is a myth. According to dermatologist Amy Kassouf, most makeup companies vastly overestimate how much SPF is in their product. So if you get a product with 30 SPF, expect to receive only half of that.

On top of that, makeup sunscreen only guards against UVB rays. “Most do not have any coverage against the UVA rays,” dermatologist Lily Talakoub told SELF. UVA rays can shine through windows in your car and house, causing makeup sunscreen to be useless.

Even Cloudy Days Require Sunscreen

A cloudy sky hovers over a highway in India.
Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

If you only apply sunscreen on sunny days, you’re harming your skin. TODAY Show gynecologist Judith Reichman explains that cloudy days can still hurt your skin. Although the sun seems dull, UV rays still shine through. UVA rays result from natural light, not direct sunlight.

Plus, clouds don’t filter sunlight as well as people assume. The Skin Cancer Foundation claims that clouds only halt 25% of sunlight. Even if you feel cool, your skin will still absorb UVA and UVB rays. Wear sunscreen every day for maximum protection.

The Sad Truth: Sunscreen Expires

A woman pours sunscreen on her hand at the beach.
Clara Margais/picture alliance via Getty Images
Clara Margais/picture alliance via Getty Images

Yes, sunscreen expires. But many people use the same bottle of sunscreen three years in a row. Dermatologist Shari Marchbein says that sunscreen becomes less effective after it goes bad. The chemicals in sunscreen–including oxybenzone, avobenzone, and homosalate–oxidize over time and deactivate.

If your sunscreen doesn’t look, smell, or feel like it did before, throw it away. The FDA requires all sunscreens to have an expiration date unless it lasts for three years. If your bottle doesn’t have a printed date, keep it for three years after purchasing.

For Skin Protection, You Need More Than Just Sunscreen

A woman wears a hat and sunglasses while sunbathing.
Mikhail TereshchenkoTASS via Getty Images
Mikhail TereshchenkoTASS via Getty Images

Although sunscreen guards your skin efficiently, it’s not the only sun protection you should count on. For instance, sunscreen does not protect the skin on top of your head. And it may not help during the hottest hours of the day–between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, according to the American Cancer Society.

The CDC recommends covering up with a hat and clothes whenever you’re not swimming. Seek shade when you can, especially if you’re at higher altitudes, where UV rays become stronger. All of this will help sunscreen do its job.

Remember Your Eyelids, Lips, And Feet

Matt Giteau of the Wallabies applies sunscreen on his lips.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

While applying sunscreen, you should cover every surface. According to dermatologist Jennifer Lucas, many people forget the ears, eyelids, lips, and areas near the edge of clothing. These places can burn, and they can even become the target of skin cancer.

Research states that the ear is the third most common spot of skin cancer, says Cleveland Clinic. Cover the tops of your ears with regular sunscreen. For the lips, a balm with SPF should be enough. To protect your scalp, wear a hat. And take your time rubbing in sunscreen.

You Can Still Get Sunburned Underwater

A girl swims in a pool.
Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Some people believe that water can protect the skin from sun rays, but the opposite is true. “UVB rays can still penetrate water, especially if you are in shallow water,” physician Tony Yuan told Forbes. That’s why you need to let sunscreen soak in before diving in.

Water can even make UV damage worse. Water reflects UV rays, causing more skin harm. Few people dive deep enough to receive full protection. According to the BBC, one meter of water halts 40% of UV rays at best.

Sunscreen Does Not Increase Melanoma Risk

Sunscreen bottles and a thermometer close to 40 ° C sit on a chair.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

In recent years, some people have grown concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen. In particular, claims that oxybenzone causes cancer have pulled people away from using sunscreen. But there is no conclusive evidence that oxybenzone causes cancer, says Harvard Health Publishing.

Science says that there is no reason to avoid sunscreen. According to a research review in the Western Journal of Medicine, sunscreen prevents burns and melanoma, even ones with oxybenzone or low SPF. Although sunscreen isn’t guaranteed to stop skin cancer, it’s still an important tool for skin health.

It’s Never Too Late To Save Your Skin

To women eat lunch beside a river outside.
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Some people spent a lot of time in the sun as kids or young adults, and they believe that they can never reverse that sun damage. But the damage doesn’t stick with you throughout life. Wearing sunscreen later in life can decrease your risk of cancer, even if you’ve burned several times before.

“Studies show you can reverse the damage,” Dr. Debra Jaliman told CNN. “You can actually take 10 to 15 years off your age [by wearing sunscreen].” It’s never too late to take care of your skin!

Clothing Works Better Than Sunscreen

A woman wears a blouse and summer hat in Paris.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Although dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen daily, it is not better than clothing. “Clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection, even more than sunscreen,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a spokesman for The Skin Cancer Foundation.

If you want the best sun protection, search for clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). The higher the UPF number, the more UV protection you’ll receive. But regular clothing will likely guard your skin better than a layer of sunscreen. Remember to apply sunscreen wherever your skin shows.

Buy A Sunscreen That Blocks Both Types Of UV Rays

Rays of sunlight spill through the trees on joggers running.
Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, not all UV rays are the same. There are two main types of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. Although both UV rays contribute to melanoma, UVB rays pose more of a risk. Buy a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that stops both UVA and UVB.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UVA rays penetrate deeply and age the skin. Sunlight has 500 times more UVA rays than UVB. Meanwhile, UVB rays are responsible for sunburns. They can also create black moles that turn into skin cancer, says the University of Iowa.