Most of us have a love-hate relationship with sunscreen. We know it’s the responsible thing to do, but it’s kind of a hassle. There are also many misconceptions on when and how to use it--yet learning the facts about sunscreen is important. Proper sunscreen application is one of the best ways to decrease your risk of skin cancer and protect yourself from the aging effects of sun damage. (It’s worth the minor inconvenience of applying it!) Here, Henry W. Lim, M.D., a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health, helps us sort out sunscreen facts from falsehoods.
Fact or fiction: Sunscreen with an SPF over 30 is enough. Any higher of an SPF doesn’t really make much difference.
Fact (technically). It’s true that the increased protection is relatively small (somewhere around 2 to 3%). However, the amount of sunscreen used in SPF testing is the equivalent of one ounce (the size of a shot glass) for the entire body surface. In reality, most people use about half of that. Therefore, the in-use SPF is usually much lower than the SPF stated on the label. So when you take that into account, the higher SPF does actually give you more protection.
Fact or fiction: People with darker skin do not need to wear sunscreen.
Fiction. People with darker complexions are still at risk for skin cancer, although the risk for sun damage causing cancer or wrinkles is less than those with lighter skin tones. But the risk is not zero, Dr. Lim says, so sunscreen is still important.
Fact or fiction: If I use waterproof sunscreen, I don’t need to reapply after going for a swim.
Fiction. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made sunscreen manufacturers stop using the term “waterproof” on labels because no sunscreen can truly live up to that claim. Now these products are labeled as “water-resistant” for either 40 or 80 minutes, depending on testing. Remember to use water-resistant sunscreen not just when you are swimming but when you are doing an activity that causes you to sweat a lot. Sweat can cause sunscreen to rub off. Follow the instructions on the product to be sure you are applying it often enough.
Fact or fiction: There’s SPF in my makeup so I don’t need to apply any to my face during the day.
It depends. Dr. Lim suggests being practical: If you apply makeup that contains sunscreen in the morning, you don’t need to reapply if you spend most of your day indoors at work or at home. In that case, an SPF of 15 or 30 in your makeup is fine. However, if you are going to be spending significant time outdoors, use sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and reapply every two hours.
Fact or fiction: If it’s cloudy, I don’t need to worry about wearing sunscreen.
Fiction. If you are going to spend time outdoors on a cloudy day, you still need to apply sunscreen. There are two different kind of rays – UVA and UVB. UVB rays are the shorter spectrum rays that do not penetrate cloud cover very well. These rays cause sunburn, so it's not as likely that you will get a sunburn on a cloudy day. However, UVA rays are longer spectrum and still penetrate through clouds and cause damage that ages the skin. Always using a “broad spectrum” sunscreen means you are getting protection from both UVB and UVA rays.
Fact or fiction: Stick, spray or lotion versions of sunscreen are all equally effective.
Fact. It all comes down to personal preference, but Dr. Lim says lotion is usually the easiest to apply correctly. The stick is harder to spread evenly after it’s applied to skin. When using a spray, which is especially popular with parents of young children, be sure that you are spraying enough on the skin – because the mist is so fine, several passes over the skin are often needed. You also need to rub it in after spraying.
“Concerns have been raised over the safety of inhaling the spray sunscreens,” notes Dr. Lim. “While the issue is still being studied and we can’t be sure on the safety of it just yet, it’s best to avoid inhaling it if you do want to use spray sunscreen.” Make sure you are not standing downwind and avoid spraying it on your face. (Instead, spray it into your hands and rub it on.)
Dr. Henry W. Lim is a dermatologist and the former chair of the Department of Dermatology at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer -- Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center -- New Center One.