In all my years as a beauty editor, I've been confounded by many, many things. Isn't an essence the same as a toner? Why does natural looking" makeup still require 15 different steps? How have we managed to discover penicillin yet can't create a matte lipstick that doesn't feel like you're wearing a plaster cast on your mouth?

Sunscreen, on the other hand, has always seemed like the most clear-cut concept. UV rays can damage your skin and potentially cause you to develop skin cancer. Wearing a product with sun protection factor (SPF) protects against these ills. Case closed. Lately, not quite.

Consumers are more confused than ever about what products are safe and effective and how to use them properly. And a steady stream of misinformation may explain why only 43% of women report using an SPF of 15 or higher regularly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For dermatologists, there's no confusion on the subject. They want you to use sunscreen regularly and take other defensive measures like seeking shade throughout the day and wearing sun protective clothing. "The key to aging well and preventing skin cancers is to get in the habit of putting on a product with SPF every single day," says Abigail Waldman, M.D., clinical director of the Mohs and Dermatologic Surgery Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Wake up, brush your teeth, put on sunscreen."

Here, Waldman and other top doctors debunk the SPF myths they hear most often from their patients, and offer commonsense strategies for proper sun protection.

Myth #1: "I tan, so I don't need to wear sunscreen."

If you're someone who loves to greet summer with a golden glow, know this: When used properly, sunscreen prevents tanning—and that's a good thing. "Nothing about a tan is healthy—it's essentially your skin sending out an SOS," says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University. "If a person is having a heart attack, the first sign might be chest pain. A tan is the same thing; it's telling you that your skin is being damaged."

A tan is essentially your skin's melanocytes reacting to UV exposure by churning out more pigment in an effort to protectively reflect away some of those damaging rays. "But a tan is only the equivalent of basically an SPF 2," Waldman says. "So the idea that getting a ‘base tan' allows you to lay out in the sun for hours is a false sense of security."

In fact, even the darkest skin tones only have a natural SPF of about 13, which is why the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone, regardless of skin color, use an SPF of 30 regularly. While less common than in Caucasians, Black and Hispanic women are diagnosed with all forms skin cancer. "I've personally seen skin cancers growing on the faces of those who have the darker type four or five skin, and it's usually a shock to them," says Alison Avram, M.D., a dermatologist specializing in skin cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Bottom line: Skin color alone ain't cutting it—you've got to slather on that SPF.

Myth #2: "The higher the SPF number, the better the protection."

You're at the drugstore and you see a bottle of sunscreen with SPF 30 and another with SPF 100—you should go for the 100, right? Maybe not. "The idea that the SPF number is the most important variable in the sunscreen equation is a huge misconception," says Orit Markowitz, M.D., Director of Pigmented Lesions and Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

While one study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology did find that participants wearing an SPF of 100 experienced fewer sunburns than those wearing the same amount of a product with an SPF of 50, Markowitz insists that there are other important factors to consider, such as the type of product and how much water resistance it has. "A patient wearing a thick physical blocker that only has an SPF of 30 will be better protected than a person who has sprayed on an SPF 100 aerosol," she says.

And don't think that SPF 100 protects you from 100 percent of the sun's damaging rays—that's not how it works. The number merely calculates how long a product keeps you from burning (SPF 15 protects you 15 times longer and so on up). And in order to get the protection advertised on the bottle, you must apply it regularly (every two hours) and amply (a shot glass for the entire body). This last part is key since most people use less than half of the recommended amount, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Myth #3: "I don't need to wear sunscreen indoors."

Particularly relevant in these times of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, many patients automatically assume that holing up indoors is a free pass to skip the sunscreen. Not true. Research shows that up to 72% of UV rays can penetrate clear glass windows, so get in the habit of applying your SPF of choice every morning, whether you'll be inside or out.

And the same goes for cloudy days. "Cloud cover doesn't even block the majority of the sun's rays," says Mathew Avram, M.D., Director of the Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center at MGH. "You're still getting significant exposure." Do you need to be reapplying as fervently as you would be if you were, say, at the beach swimming? Probably not, but that doesn't mean some vigilance isn't required. "I'd be shocked if the sunscreen you applied at eight o'clock in the morning is still active at noon, whether you're outdoors sweating or not," adds Alison Avram. So be sure to break out that bottle at least twice a day, every day.

Read the full story here: Sunscreen Myths That Drive Dermatologists Crazy


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