9 Myths About Wearing Sunscreen, Explained By Dermatologists

Is sunscreen toxic? How much SPF should we wear to prevent skin cancer? Experts clear up common misconceptions.

The sun is coming out and spirits are lifting higher. But the same sun that boosts our mood is also the culprit behind skin cancer.

Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, will affect more than 100,000 people in the United States in 2020 and almost 7,000 Americans will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.

Luckily, we have sunscreen to protect us. But can some sunscreens be just as dangerous as the sun? Food and Drug Administration data show that chemicals in sunscreens are absorbed into the human body at levels high enough to raise concerns about potentially toxic effects, while websites like Goop now tout their lists of “non-toxic sunscreens.”

With that in mind, HuffPost spoke to experts to clear up the most common myths and help you understand the importance of sunscreen.

How Sunscreen Works

A broad-spectrum sunscreen stops the sun’s rays from entering and damaging your skin, particularly UltraViolet A and B rays, most commonly referred to as UVA and UVB rays. UVA is what causes aging (photoaging) and UVB causes burning. UVA rays can cause genetic damage to cells and penetrate deeper than UVB.

There are two basic types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Simply put, chemical sunscreens are those that contain chemicals. We’re talking things like octylcrylen, avobenzone and octinoxate. Physical sunscreens use natural agents like zinc and titanium oxide.

Myth #1: The SPF protection of foundation or face cream is enough

Unfortunately, for many people this isn’t true.

Dermatologist Jessica Weiser said, “Generally, makeup contains SPF 15-25 and is not applied in adequate quantities to provide even the amount of sun protection advertised on the bottle. To properly protect against the sun, a standalone sunscreen with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB coverage and an SPF of 30 or higher should be applied underneath makeup.”

Yannis Alexandrides, a plastic surgeon who founded a line of skin products, added the only way makeup would provide enough protection would be to layer so much that it’d be impossible to look presentable. “You need around eight times the normal amount of foundation to get the correct sun protection, which isn’t realistic or good for your skin,” he said.

Myth #2: You don’t need sunscreen in the winter

Another common myth is that you only need to wear sunscreen when it’s warm and the sun is out in full force. But UV rays are present at all times during the day, and it’s important to wear sunscreen year-round: “The only time that skin is not exposed to UV is after sunset and before sunrise when it is dark outside,” Weiser said.

It's just as important to wear SPF in the winter as it is in the summer.
javi_indy via Getty Images
It's just as important to wear SPF in the winter as it is in the summer.

Michelle Wong, a chemist and content creator at Lab Muffin, explains further: “While there will be less UV [in colder months], your skin might still be susceptible to UV damage, especially if you have very pale skin or a family history of skin cancer,” she told HuffPost.

Dennis Gross, a dermatologist with a background in cancer research, adds that UV rays penetrate clouds and windows. So wearing sunscreen 365 days a year, indoors and outdoors, is essential. Plus, sun damage is cumulative, so even if you don’t see the damage now, you will eventually.

“Even on a cloudy day, 80% of the sun’s harsh effects will still reach your skin,” Alexandrides said, adding, “It’s important to remember that white snow is a great reflector and the sun’s rays are even harsher up at altitude, so it’s vital to apply an SPF with a factor of 50 when skiing, too.”

Myth #3: Apply the same amount of sunscreen as you would your regular face cream

How much you apply is one of the most important factors in using sunscreen, and unfortunately, most people do not apply enough.

Depending on national regulations, you might read different explanations for how much you need to apply. The variation is based on skin cancer rates in those countries, as well as manufacturing regulations for sunscreen. The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, for example, all describe their regulations differently.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the recommended dose for sunscreen is 1 ounce (or 2 tablespoons) for the whole body; the National Health Service in the U.K. recommends 2 teaspoons for the head, face and arms; and the Cancer Council in Australia recommends 1 teaspoon for each arm, leg, body front, body back and face, which equates to a total of about 7 teaspoons for a full body application.

Myth #4: Applying once in the morning is enough

Have you ever noticed that sunscreen labels mention to reapply after two hours, or after water exposure or sweating? Weiser explains that though sunscreen lasts for two hours on dry skin, it lasts only 40 to 80 minutes on wet skin. On any day that you spend time outdoors, you must reapply at least every two hours.

Think of your sun protection as a film over your face, Wong said. “This film slowly breaks down over the course of the day as you sweat, produce oils and so on, just like how foundation bunches up during the day.”

Myth #5: You can mix sunscreen with your face cream or foundation

That’s a risk for many reasons: You are likely not applying enough of the sunscreen to have adequate protection and you’re potentially diluting the active ingredients and lowering its efficacy, Weiser said. Instead, she recommends layering each product properly, applying your sunscreen last and, once that’s dry, adding your foundation.

Gross said that physical sunscreens can be mixed with foundation to diminish any ashy-ness, but it’s not ideal to do so. “Mixing sunscreen with non-SPF face cream or foundation can diminish the SPF factor,” he said.

Myth #6: Sunscreen protection is cumulative, so SPF 20 and SPF 30 provide the protection of SPF 50

This is somewhat true, but in reality, it’s probably best to apply two layers of the same product, Wong advised. It would only work cumulatively if the two layers were applied evenly, but it’s impossible to do so without wiping some of the first layer off.

Adding different SPFs to each other will not produce a cumulative increase in protection.
LumiNola via Getty Images
Adding different SPFs to each other will not produce a cumulative increase in protection.

“The numbers in SPF are not cumulative because each product blocks a certain percentage of UVB,” Weiser said. “Applying an SPF 20 followed by an SPF 30 would give the same protection as applying SPF 30 alone.”

Myth #7: If you don’t burn without using SPF, you’re OK

Tanning is essentially your cells dying – that’s why your skin is turning brown or red. Doesn’t sound too healthy now, does it?

“There’s no such things as a safe tan,” Weiser said. “Any tan is a sign of accumulated UV damage to the skin cells.”

“A tan is potential damage to your skin and your body is reacting to sun damage,” said dermatologist Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper). “Your skin can experience sun damage that you cannot see, leading to early signs of aging, hyperpigmentation and potentially skin cancer. That is the dark side of tanning!”

Myth #8: A low SPF is enough

This depends on your skin’s sensitivity to sun and how much UV you’re exposed to, Wong said.

Gross has an easy test: If your skin turns pink in the sun with the current SPF you’re using, then you need to up your SPF factor. “I recommend SPF 30 to be safe. SPF 30 is sufficient to protect collagen and keep skin looking younger, in addition to protecting against skin cancer,” he said.

#9: Sunscreen can cause cancer

This one can’t be called a myth quiet yet, as more studies need to be done. But here’s what we know now: At this point, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen can cause cancer. A recent study found that oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen, stays in people’s bloodstream for 21 days, but that hasn’t been directly linked to cancer.

David Strauss, head of the division of applied regulatory science at the FDA, recently advised that “just because a sunscreen’s active ingredient, or some other type of ingredient, is absorbed, does not mean it’s unsafe.”

But if you want to play it safe, Gross recommends avoiding the ingredient oxybenzone. But keep wearing sunscreen!

Simply put, “It is much more likely that you will get skin cancer not wearing sunscreen rather than get cancer from wearing sunscreen,” Lee said.

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