Sun Lies We Tell Ourselves

We all love to soak up the rays and enjoy the summer, but we all know how much damage the sun can do, so we’re separating fact from fiction.

Dr. Madhavi Kandula helps us do that.

THE LIE: “If I protect my skin year-round, it’s okay to sunbathe a little when I’m on vacation.”

THE TRUTH: You deserve a gold star for wearing a broad-spectrum, SPF 30-or-higher sunscreen throughout the year—it’s your best defense against UV damage. But taking a week off from that diligence can undo a year’s worth of protection. “Occasional but intense sun exposure, like the kind you get on a beachy vacation, is linked to an increased risk of basal cell carcinoma, as well as melanoma,” says Gary Marder, medical director of the Skin Cancer Center in Okeechobee, FL, and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. Here’s why: Every day, your skin cells create enough melanin to protect themselves from a small amount of sun exposure. But when, after being cooped up all winter, you strip down and bask in the sun for days, the cells can’t cope with all that extra UV exposure. “They suffer DNA damage, and that can lead to wrinkles and skin cancer,” says dermatologist Leslie Baumann, M.D., founder of the Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami. So grab a chaise in the shade and slap on the SPF. Try Coppertone Sensitive Skin Faces Lotion SPF 50, $8.99, or Aveeno Hydrosport Wet Skin Spray SPF 30, $9.99.

THE LIE: “I need some sun in order to get enough vitamin D.”

THE TRUTH: “An adult needs 600 IU [international units] of vitamin D per day in order to have strong bones and a good immune system,” Marder says, “which you can get in just five to 10 minutes of being outdoors.” You don’t even need that: You can eat your daily D fix with one serving of an oily fish like salmon or trout, fortified orange juice, milk, or yogurt. You could also take a vitamin D supplement, but doctors say food sources are best. What definitively won’t work is “soaking up” the sun’s rays. “If you take in too much vitamin D at once, your body backfires and starts to break it down, depleting your levels,” Marder says

THE LIE: “I’ve heard that 80 percent of sun damage happens before you’re 18, so I’m already doomed.Why panic now?”

THE TRUTH: This one is a particularly wrinkly old wives’ tale. “Only 23 percent of your lifetime sun damage occurs by the time you’re 18,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. Not only will slathering on sunscreen now help keep your skin smooth and healthy in the long run, it can actually help reverse some of the damage that’s already occurred. “The repair enzymes in your body are constantly working to undo the effects of past sun exposure, and the better protected they are from UV rays, the more effective they are at fixing the damage,” Baumann explains. If that doesn’t convince you, take Marder’s word for it: “I have personally witnessed skin cancers shrink in patients who avoided direct sun exposure after being diagnosed.” Now repeat after us: I will wear SPF 30 every day. I will wear SPF 30 every day…

THE LIE: “The sun is only dangerous between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.”

THE TRUTH: The sun may not feel as intense post-lunchtime, “but it can do damage even on a cloudy day, so you have to take afternoon sun seriously,” says Baumann. And if you’re sitting by the water, the sun’s rays are reflected and intensified, so stick to that every-two-hours sunscreen-application rule, at least until happy hour starts.

THE LIE: “I’m not Caucasian, so I’m not really at risk for skin cancer.”

THE TRUTH: We get the logic of this one, because the darker your natural skin tone, the more melanin your skin contains. And this does give you some inherent protection against UV rays, but dermatologists all agree: It’s not nearly enough. “A person with medium-brown skin has a ‘natural’ SPF of about 13. You need at least SPF 30 to protect against skin cancer and wrinkles,” Gohara says, and even the darkest-skinned individuals don’t have a natural SPF that high. Another wake-up call: African-Americans are at higher risk for acral lentiginous melanoma, a particularly dangerous form of the disease that develops on the palms of hands and the soles of feet—places the sun often doesn’t even reach. “It’s so deadly because many people don’t see it until it’s spread,” says Gohara. Which is why it’s also essential for everyone, regardless of skin color, to see a dermatologist once a year for an allover skin check.

THE LIE: “Getting a bit of color on my legs or arms is no biggie—they aren’t as delicate as my face.”

THE TRUTH: No siree bob. “The most common spot for melanoma to develop on a woman is on the calf of a leg,” Gohara says. The second most common area is on the torso. Remember: You need to make sure all of your exposed body parts are either covered with clothing or coated in a broad-spectrum sunscreen like Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist SPF 45, $10.49.

THE LIE: “Don’t some chemical sunscreens contain carcinogens?”

THE TRUTH: This rumor has been floating around online for some time now. “It started when, in 2001, a small study performed on mice suggested that oxybenzone, an FDA-aproved ingredient found in many chemical sunscreens, produced free radicalsthat may contribute to melanoma,” says Marder says. But every dermatologist we spoke with said there’s no scientific evidence suggesting that oxybenzone is harmful to humans. Still, if you’d feel better using an all-natural sunscreen, one of our favorites is Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30, $10.99.