Suncare Month

These 7 Sunscreen "Facts" Are Completely Untrue

Dermatologists want you to stop believing them.

by Calin Van Paris
A short-haired brunette with sunscreen on her face
Getty / Dora Lazarevic / EyeEm

We chase it, we hide from it, we worship it, we guard against it — it’s a love/hate sort of thing. We are talking, of course, about the sun. In the near century since we learned of the link between the sun and skin cancer, sun exposure, effects, and protection have been a near-constant subject of collective conversation and debate. Recent years have brought about a revolution in sun care, elevating SPF from an at-the-beach option to an everyday necessity and even self-care ritual (thanks, beauty brands!). But it’s a double-refracted ray: While many more people are paying attention to their skin health, mythologies around vitamin D, skin cancer, and sunscreen have seemed to flourish in turn. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there; people pretending to be experts and putting things out on social media,” says NYC dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose. As an antidote to this trend, we spoke to experts about some of the most pervasive assumptions around sun care.

Here, seven common myths about the sun and your skin, debunked.

Myth 1: UV Rays Are Necessary For Vitamin D

Yes, it’s true that vitamin D insufficiency affects almost 50% of the population worldwide. And considering that the vitamin is associated with decreased cancer risk, immunity, and bone health, the collective shortage is cause for concern — but there’s no need to panic-buy a vitamin D lamp just yet. Instead of exposing yourself to added UV light, which can increase your risk of skin cancer, Murphy-Rose says turning to your diet instead. Foods like salmon and egg yolk can bolster vitamin D levels, or a supplement makes things even easier. “The process of vitamin D development in the body and the conversions that occur do require sun exposure,” says Murphy-Rose. “However, D-3 supplements offer the vitamin in a fully converted form so you actually don’t need the sun.”

Myth 2: Young People Don’t Get Skin Cancer

While Skin Cancer Foundation President Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff acknowledges that melanoma diagnoses in children are quite rare (accounting for only 1% of all cancers in children from birth to age 14, and 4% of all cancers in adolescents from age 15 to age 19), it can and does occur, making sun protection and vigilance is crucial at any age. “A family history of the disease or the presence of certain genes can increase a person’s risk for developing the disease at a young age,” she says, noting that genetic factors are the most common cause of the uncommon occurrence. The other? Tanning culture. “I do see young women presenting with all kinds of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which are usually caused by unprotected UV exposure,” says Sarnoff. “I’m seeing these pop up in even younger girls now than in years past. There is a culture of sun worship among many adolescent girls, which leads to dangerous amounts of exposure to UV rays.” For a sun-kissed aesthetic minus the damage, self-tanner is your new best friend.

Myth 3: All New Moles Are Bad Moles

“Moles are beautiful birthmarks that are almost always perfectly benign,” says Dr. Ellen Marmur, board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare. However, some are subject to develop to the more concerning sort. “Moles by definition are benign,” agrees Murphy-Rose. “Some moles, however, that have atypical cells do have a risk of turning into cancer. But most melanomas turn de novo, which means they form on their own, not in an existing mole.” Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Amy Wechsler suggests staying vigilant for signs of abnormality, including bleeding, asymmetry, a black hue, or general changes to prevent the 20% of melanoma that does occur in our beautiful birthmarks. Yearly skin checks with your dermatologist are an easy way to stay on top of any abnormal changes.

Myth 4: All Sunscreens Are The Same

When it comes to filters — as in, the ingredient in sunscreens that protect your skin from UVA and UVA rays — there are two kinds: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens use the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to literally block UV rays from the skin, like a shield. Conversely, chemical sunscreens use, well, chemicals like avobenzone, oxtinoxate, and oxybenzone to dispel UV rays. “Chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the body, and studies have been done where you see levels in the bloodstream,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Are they dangerous or harmless? We don’t really know. But we do know that they are not as effective as physical sunscreens, which put a true shield between your skin and the sun.” That’s not to say you should veto chemical sunscreens — people actually prefer them because they’re often lighter and more absorbent than their physical counterparts. At the end of the day, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen — so choose one that works with your skin, and stick with it.

Myth 5: Deep Skin Tones Don’t Need Sunscreen

“Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or skin tone,” says Sarnoff. “Although people with darker skin tone are not as high-risk for developing skin cancer as those with light skin, when they do develop skin cancer, it tends to be found at a later, more dangerous stage.” In short: Proper sun protection is essential regardless of skin color. Though deeper skin tons produce more of melanin pigment that helps protect skin from UV rays, sunburn, premature skin-aging, and hyperpigmentation remain realities for everyone.

Myth 6: You Only Need SPF For Your Face

“NO!” says Dr. Ros, adding that focusing on areas that get the most sun exposure is key. Forgotten body parts like hands and heels should be given their fair share of SPF — if not for the cosmetic benefits, then for the good of your health. “Acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) is an especially dangerous type of melanoma that typically appears on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet,” says Sarnoff, adding that this is the most common form of melanoma in people of color. “Although the risk factors for ALM aren’t fully understood, it’s less likely that UV radiation is a factor.”

Myth 7: SPF In Makeup Is Enough Protection

While opting for beauty products with SPF is beneficial, it’s not a replacement for actual sunscreen. “Makeup which includes SPF is just the icing on the cake,” says dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara. “A base SPF is essential.” One thing to keep in mind is that in order to get the sun protection factor sunscreen companies claim, you have to use an ample amount of the product — no light dabs. For your face, apply at least two fingers worth (squeeze it out the length of your index and middle fingers); for body, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying about the equivalent of a shot glass of sunscreen to exposed parts of the body. Dr. Ros sums it up simply: “You just have to have a really good coat.”

Studies cited:

Jakobsen, J., Smith, C., Bysted, A., & Cashman, K. D. (2019). Vitamin D in Wild and Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Salmo Salar)-What Do We Know?. Nutrients, 11(5), 982.

Scalzo, D. A., Hida, C. A., Toth, G., Sober, A. J., & Mihm, M. C., Jr (1997). Childhood melanoma: a clinicopathological study of 22 cases. Melanoma research, 7(1), 63–68.