5 Sunscreen Myths Debunked

Since EWG released its first Guide to Sunscreens more than a decade ago, many things about the products have changed. But myths about sunscreens persist.

Even if you’ll be indoors more than usual this summer, sun safety is still important, whether you’re sitting in a park, enjoying a backyard BBQ, or going for a walk. Here are five of the most common – and persistent – sunscreen myths.

Myth: All sunscreens provide adequate UV protection.

Fact: Many sunscreens currently on the U.S. market can help prevent sunburn – caused mostly by UVB rays – when used appropriately, but they may not provide adequate UVA protection.

Both UVA and UVB rays play a role in the development of skin cancer. But UVA rays penetrate more deeply and play a greater role in skin aging and wrinkles, whereas UVB rays are responsible primarily for sunburns and skin inflammation. So exposure to UVA rays can have more long-term consequences.

The Food and Drug Administration defines “broad spectrum” as providing protection from both types of rays. However, the standard for using that term on a label is not very strict – one study found that participants who used a poor quality broad spectrum sunscreen for two days on a tropical beach got the same UVA exposure as those visiting a tanning salon once.

Other countries, particularly those in the EU, require much higher UV protection. Europe requires proportional UVA and UVB protection – a standard that about 70 percent of products in this year’s Guide would not meet.

Myth: The higher the SPF value, the better.

Fact: It’s better to stick to products between SPF 15 and SPF 50+.

SPF, or sun protection factor, mainly measures skin redness protection from UVB rays. Higher-rated SPF products can give consumers a false sense of security – they may think that the higher the SPF, the more protected they are from all forms of skin damage. However, the FDA has found that high SPF sunscreens may overexpose consumers to UVA rays and raise their risk of cancer, because higher SPF doesn’t guarantee the sunscreen offers equally high UVA protection.

Recently, the FDA proposed a cap of SPF 60+, and EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens with SPF over 50+.

Myth: Vitamin A is used in skincare products, so it must be good in sunscreen.

Fact: Vitamin A may accelerate skin tumor and lesion growth when in the presence of sunlight, and it should be avoided on sun-exposed skin.

Also known as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol, vitamin A is an antioxidant commonly used in skincare products and a popular additive in sunscreens, in particular. It’s believed to slow signs of aging, but according to the results of government tests, it speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. EWG recommends consumers avoid vitamin A in all daytime products, and especially sunscreens.

Myth: Sunscreen causes vitamin D deficiency, so people with darker skin tones shouldn’t wear sunscreen.

Fact: Sun protection is important for everyone.

Vitamin D, a hormone that supports strong bones and a healthy immune system, is produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight, specifically UVB rays. Certain foods and supplements are also a source of vitamin D. Sunscreen protects the skin from high levels of UV exposure, and our Sunscreen Guide team has received inquiries on whether or not vitamin D deficiency is directly linked to consistent sunscreen use.

Many Americans, especially those with darker skin, older people and those living farther from the equator, don’t get enough vitamin D in their daily lives.

There’s no known level of UV exposure that maximizes vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk, so EWG recommends consulting your health care provider to see whether you’re at risk of deficiency. If so, you may be told to take vitamin D supplements or eat foods rich in vitamin D, or both, and to avoid spending time in the sun unprotected.

Myth: You don’t need to wear sunscreen indoors.

Fact: Depending on your routine, you may want to wear sunscreen indoors.

With many people now working from home or just venturing outside less frequently, sunscreen may seem like an unnecessary precaution. However, according to the American Cancer Society, most windows block out UVB rays, but UVA rays still penetrate through glass. So if you often sit near a window, you may be at risk. You should use sunscreen daily and reapply every two hours.

Your window may not be the only reason to wear sunscreen. Smartphones, computers, TVs and other devices emit significant levels of blue light, also known as high-energy visible light. Long-term exposure to blue light – from staring at a laptop screen, for instance – can cause potential skin damage. Recent research suggests that blue light contributes to skin aging similar to UVA, but more research is needed to understand the full effects of blue light exposure and how best to protect your skin from high-energy visible light.

Check out our 2020 Guide to Sunscreens to see the best sunscreens, moisturizers with SPF, and lip balms with SPF for indoor and outdoor use.

Finally, it’s important to remember that sunscreens aren’t the only, or even the best, way to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. Other protections from sun exposure include a hat and clothing, avoiding the mid-day sun, and staying in the shade – or making your own – whenever possible.   

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