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Sunscreen myths and facts
July 16, 2017, 4:26 pm

Sunscreens are increasingly becoming popular as protection against the onslaught of hot sunshine that we are accustomed to most of the year. However, there are several myths and misconceptions about sunscreens that need to be disabused, especially now, given that we are in the midst of our hot summer weather. Understanding the truth about sunscreen will also help people use sunscreens appropriately.

First, we need to get a basic understanding and difference between the Ultra-Violet A (UVA) and Ultra-Violet B (UVB) light that is present in sunlight and which can affect the skin after exposure.

UVA light has a longer wave that penetrates into the thickest layer of skin, called the dermis. Unprotected exposure to UVA rays can lead to skin aging, wrinkles, and a suppressed immune system.

UVB rays have a shorter wave and are most responsible for sunburn, which is the burning of the top layer of skin that causes the tan. UVB rays can play a key role in developing skin cancer, and frequent sunburns may cause permanent damage over time.

Let us now look at the veracity of some of the common misconceptions about sunscreens:

Sunscreen is not always necessary: Many people believe that sunscreen is only necessary when their entire body is exposed to sunlight, such as when at the pool or out swimming. Ultraviolet light is still harmful to exposed skin, no matter how much of it is exposed.

Some people also believe that sunscreen is not necessary on cloudy days because the sun does not feel as strong as usual. The truth is that anytime the body is exposed to light from the sun, it is exposed to UV rays, even if it is an overcast day. It is best to cover the exposed skin with sunscreen and consider other protective methods, such as wearing a hat.

Sunscreens prevent the body from absorbing vitamin D: While vitamin D is a vital nutrient for human health, and the body absorbs it easily through sunlight, sunscreens do tend to block this. So, in theory, using sunscreen 100 percent of the time would prevent a person from getting the proper levels of vitamin D. However, sunlight can penetrate clothing, sunscreens lose their effectiveness over time, and it is likely a person will forget to put sunscreen on every time they see the sun. Experts suggest that just 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure per day can create the proper amount of vitamin D in the body.

Sunscreen causes health problems: This myth comes from an older study done on oxybenzone, one of the active ingredients in many sunscreens. Rats exposed to oxybenzone experienced serious negative side effects.

However, new research points to flaws in the previous study and clarifies that the levels of exposure that produced health problems in the rats were extremely high and that such results were unattainable in humans, even among those who use sunscreen regularly and liberally.

The new study also notes that after 40 years of using oxybenzone as an ingredient in sunscreens, there has been no data published to show any toxic effects of oxybenzone on humans.

People with dark skin do not need sunscreen: Some people believe that those with more melanin pigment in their skin, which gives them a darker appearance, do not need to use sunscreen. While melanin does act to diffuse UVB rays and may to some extent protect against sunburns, it still does not provide protection against harmful UVA that could lead to premature skin aging and wrinkles. Melanin will also not protect the skin from extreme sun exposure, such as spending long hours in the sun unprotected.

People with darker skin are also not protected against skin cancer. One study noted that skin cancer survival rates were lowest in people with darker skin, including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. These results indicate a need for better screening and awareness of the risk of skin cancer.

You do not tan while wearing sunscreen: While sunscreen helps protect against UVA and UVB rays, it still will not protect the body completely, or throughout the day. In reality, sunscreen breaks down in the light and loses its effectiveness over a short period of time leaving the skin exposed to the sun. It is recommended that people reapply sunscreen every 2 to 4 hours, at least.

A tan is the body's natural protective response to UV exposure. To avoid a tan, it is best to apply sunscreen and cover up with a long-brimmed hat and clothing.

All sunscreen is the same: There is a common misconception that all sunscreen is roughly the same and will do the same job. Active ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and ecamsule are often used to filter out UVA and UVB rays. There are also chemical blockers, such as avobenzone. These ingredients all block the sun in different ways. So it is important to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen, as it will protect the skin against the largest range of UV light.

Another important consideration is the sun protection factor (SPF) of the sunscreen. Experts recommend regularly applying a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, even on cloudy days.

Sunscreen is waterproof: Sunscreen labeled as water-resistant or sweat-resistant, or marketed as sunscreen for sports, may appear to be waterproof. Unfortunately, this is an overstatement of what sunscreen can do. No sunscreen product can be 100 percent waterproof. People must always reapply water-resistant sunscreens after water exposure, and allow sunscreen to settle on the skin for at least 10 to 15 minutes before going in the water.

Sunscreen never expires: Contrary to common belief, sunscreen naturally expires. The active ingredients can break down over time, and using expired sunblock may leave the skin unprotected.

Instructions for each sunscreen can vary, and people should follow the instructions on the packaging for maximum protection. Proper use of sunscreen can help guard against skin damage and sunburn.

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