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Debunking 5 common sunscreen myths

By Robert Elsenpeter, Contributing writer
Published On: Apr 11 2012 02:46:32 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 23 2013 09:21:49 AM CDT
Sunscreen on woman's back at the beach

iStock / mangostock

Tis the season to slather on tanning lotion and roast in the sun. And whether or not you buy the notion of global warming, you definitely need to protect yourself against the sun.

That is, unless you're already dark complected, then you're safe. And if you wear waterproof sunscreen, you only have to apply it once a day. If you're shopping for sunscreen, get the highest sun protection factor (SPF) level you come across. But if you already have some in the medicine cabinet, you're still good for this year.

Those are the myths we tend to buy as fact, but there is an inconvenient truth to all of these (see what we did there? It's an Al Gore joke!) There is a learning curve to being safe in the sun.

With that in mind, we offer up the five most common sunscreen myths.

Woman tanning on beach

Myth No. 5: Tan people don't need sunscreen

When someone like Marcia Cross (she's that pale redhead from "Desperate Housewives" whose internal organs you can see when she stands in front of a bright light) goes under the sun, the first thing that comes to mind is, "Girl! You better get some lotion on!"

But when someone like Wesley Snipes steps foot on the beach, are we as quick to worry? Likely not.

But just because Marcia is more likely to go up in a ball of flame, that doesn't mean Wesley is safe. The fact of the matter is that Wesley is more likely to get skin cancer.

Ultraviolet-A (UVA) radiation is what causes people to tan. It triggers cells called melanocytes to produce melanin (the culprit behind melanoma), and melanin is the brown pigment behind tanning. Darker skinned people tan more deeply than lighter skinned people, so there's actually more risk of skin cancer.

Boy on beach

Myth No. 4: Waterproof lotions don't need to be reapplied

The American consumer is lazy. Sorry, but we are. So when we see words like "waterproof" and "water resistant," we don't consider that they are not synonymous, nor do we try to figure out what those terms really mean.

According to the FDA, "water resistant" sunscreen must keep working for 40 minutes in the water. To be "waterproof," the lotion doesn't have to be good all day -- it only has to last for 80 minutes.

If you only intend to be outside for 80 minutes, then -- yes -- waterproof really does last all day (water resistant gave it up more than half hour before that).But if you're going to be out there for 81 minutes or more, you have to reapply the waterproof stuff.

Sunscreen bottle in beach sand

Myth No. 3: SPF 30 is twice as protective as SPF 15

Third grade was great, wasn't it? We got to play dodgeball, there were milk breaks, and 15 plus 15 equaled 30.Don't worry: It still does, but third grade math does not apply to sunscreen. An SPF 30 sunscreen does not deliver twice the protection of an SPF 15 sunblock.

If you're shelling out a couple extra bucks for SPF 30 thinking you're getting extra protection, you are -- but not as much as you think.

SPF 15 blocks about 96.7 percent of UV rays. SPF 30, on the other hand, blocks 97.7 percent of those rays. That's right. That extra money buys you a measly 1 percent (and a false sense of security). And as you move up the scale (SPF 40 and 50, for instance) the number barely even changes.

Save up those couple bucks and invest in a hat.

Baby girl in hat on lake beach

Myth No. 2: Sunscreen is all you need to stay safe in the sun

So you've lathered yourself up from head to toe with sunscreen. You're safe, right? Not so fast.

You probably missed some spots. Think of your body like one of those diagrams that show different cuts of meat on a cow. Some parts get overlooked while some need an entirely different kind of lotion.

Don't forget your ears and neck. If you've ever burned them, you probably aren't likely to let it happen twice.

Also, don't forget your scalp. It isn't all the bald guys and gals out there who have to worry about burning their domes. Be sure to wear a hat. A hat gives you protection for your scalp, as well as your face.

Don't forget your lips. The American Academy of Dermatology advises you wear a lip balm with SPF 30 protection. Of course, if it were up to them, we'd live in caves, but we digress.


Myth No. 1: Last year's sunscreen is still good

Unlike a fine wine, sunscreen does not improve with age.

In fact, sunscreen goes down hill pretty quickly, so if you have some leftover from last year, chuck it and spend a couple bucks and buy a new bottle/tube/spray can/whatever.

How do you know if it's old when you buy it from the store? It's like buying a steak -- check the expiration date (really; they're on there). If you're past the date, pass on that bottle. Expired sunscreen won't hurt you, but it has broken down and it's just not effective.

Ideally, you'll use the bottle up the same year you buy it, chuck the empty container, make it through the winter, and then buy a new one.

So glop it on, wear a hat, and don't live under the sun. You'll keep some oncologist from buying a yacht, and you'll be a lot healthier.


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