9 Big & Burning Questions About Sunscreen -- Answered

sunscreen myths debunkedWhen it comes to sunscreen, we all know it's important to apply early and often. But beyond that, certain questions arise: Do sun protection factor (SPF) levels make a significant difference? Is a bit of sun important to ensure you're getting the necessary amount of vitamin D? Is a base tan helpful in avoiding a bad burn?


Board certified dermatologist Susan Goodlerner, MD, who has a private practice in Torrance, California, and is also a clinical professor of dermatology at Harbor-UCLA, shed some light (pun intended) on fact versus fiction when it comes to sun safety.

1. What SPF level is best?

If you have fair skin, you might find yourself reaching for the highest SPF number you can find, but does it really matter?

"I recommend at least 30, 50 if you may not put on enough," Goodlerner says. "Higher than 50 makes only a few percent more protection. More important for sports or the beach is purchasing one that is water-resistant and reapplying every 80 minutes."

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2. Are more natural-ingredient-based products better for your skin?

An important factor to consider when purchasing sunscreen, Goodlerner notes, is to look at exactly what are you putting on your skin. While some people, especially parents, may prefer non-chemical-based formulas, Goodlerner points out that without certain known sunblockers, you risk getting burned. 

While some sunscreens, like those without oxybenzone, garner high ratings from the Environmental Working Group, Goodlerner says to avoid ones that contain scents or additives that may cause allergic reactions.

3. What about those popular sunscreen towelettes or wipes?

These are so convenient, but do they work? Goodlerner agrees with the EWG's recommendation to avoid towelette sunscreens as they don't provide enough protection.

4. And combo sunscreen-bug repellents? Do those work?

Another convenience product moms love to reach for, but are they safe? "As often as you need to reapply sunscreen," Goodlerner says, "you do not want to put that amount of bug ingredient on your skin."

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5. Can you use last season's lotion and still be safe?

What happens if you get an unusually hot and sunny day and all you have on hand is an expired tube of sunscreen -- can you still use it a season later? According to Goodlerner, it's unknown how much effectiveness is lost over time so it's best to purchase a new bottle.

6. Is there any truth to the notion that a base tan helps avoid getting burned? 

It's a pretty common belief that getting a nice little base tan before hitting the summer sun is a good idea. Does that set us up for safer sun time? "A tan is sun damage, not protection," Goodlerner says. "Tanning, especially indoor tanning, increases the risk for melanoma."

7. What about the benefits of vitamin D?

But a little sunshine is good for us, right? While some folks are firm believers in getting their vitamin D from the sun, Goodlerner says there are other, safer ways to take it in. "According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it's better to get vitamin D from supplements and protect your skin from the sun," the doctor notes.

8. Are sunscreen sprays as effective as lotions?

Goodlerner notes that sunscreen sprays are fine for touch-ups but if you want to make sure you or your kids are protected, start with a lotion first.

9. Does the clothing make a difference?

The good news for outdoor enthusiasts, Goodlerner notes, is that sun-protective clothing has come a long way in terms of appearance, protection, and comfort.

"An important thing for parents to keep in mind is to not just rely on sunscreen, which lasts a maximum of 80 minutes," she says. "Rash guards can be more effective. There's sun-protective clothing and gear for hiking and tennis and plenty of other sports now."

With sunny skies in the forecast, keep this information handy and your skin protected.


Image via Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

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