The Truth About Your Sunscreen

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Story Updated: Aug 6, 2014

We are far from the days where slathering on baby oil for the perfect tan is the norm; today, many of us are touting beach hats and being vigilant about slathering on sunscreen lotion. But when it comes to caring for your skin effectively, all the information out there can be a bit confusing. There are mixed messages and quite a few products -- from sunscreen pills to a plethora of different SPFs -- claiming to reduce photo aging and block cancerous UV rays.

Here, we bust common myths and give you the real sunscreen facts as well as advice from a trusted dermatologist.

Myth No. 1: I only need to wear sunscreen if I'm going outside in the sun.

Not so. Even though you may think you only need sunscreen in the sun (seems logical enough, right?), "often times people are getting additional exposure through the day -- at lunch, and walking to and from their car -- that could lead to sun damage and all of its consequences, such as photo aging and skin cancer," says William Rietkerk, board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City, and Professor of Dermatology at New York Medical College. So, make sunscreen part of your daily routine, regardless of the activities you have planned.

Myth No. 2: SPF 15 is all I need to protect my skin.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sunscreens of at least 15 are recommended. Sunscreen numbers are associated with the percentage of protection from UVB radiation. So, while SPF 30 isn't twice as protective as an SPF of 15, when used properly, SPF 15 protects the skin from 93 percent of UVB radiation, and an SPF 30 sunscreen provides 97 percent protection. For daily use, Rietkerk recommends SPF 30. "Not only does recent data support protection from skin cancer, it also supports protection from photo aging and will lessen the appearance of future wrinkles with consistent use," says Rietkerk.

Myth No. 3: Sunscreen pills are just as effective as sunscreen lotion.

Rietkerk doesn't recommend sunscreen pills. "They do contain many compounds that prevent sun damage, but they work totally different from sunscreen." He explains that sunscreen acts as a barrier that prevents UV light from being absorbed by skin structures by either reflecting or absorbing the UV rays. "Pills aid in repairing or preventing the damage that occurs after the UV radiation is absorbed by the skin." In other words, pills just lessen the damage and aren't actually blocking harmful rays.

Myth No. 4: Beauty products like SPF-containing foundations and facial creams are replacements for sunscreen lotion.

Well, kind of. While the SPF in beauty products is effective, there are guidelines for proper use and quantity to reap its benefits. As Rietkerk explains, you might have to use a lot more product than you normally would to get the same benefits as sunscreen. So, if you're a sometimes makeup-wearer, occasionally miss facial cream applications or only apply a tiny amount to your skin, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Turn over your beauty product's packaging and take a good, hard look at the information provided to see if your routine measures up to a sunscreen lotion.

Myth No. 5: I know I need to reapply sunscreen when I get out of the water, but waterproof sunscreens should last while I'm in the pool or ocean.

While waterproof sunscreens are effective, they are so for only short periods of time (typically less than 80 minutes, says Rietkerk). It's vital that you reapply within this time frame, whether or not you're still planning to spend some more time in the water (and of course, apply again when you get out of the water). Ultimately, "the safest way to protect your skin is with barriers like UV-protecting clothing," says Rietkerk. One of our favorite brands is Coolibar, but there are quite a few on the market.

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