Sunscreen: The Facts


Not a myth: UV rays harm skin. You can cite the NIH, CNN, and your mother on this. Direct sun exposure regularly puts sunbathers, nudists, and other civilians at higher risk for cancer—but there's also a host of other ways the sun funks with your skin. Nonfiction horror is not really ITG's beat, so Google those at your own risk.

There is, however, a Pantheon full of pseudoscientific myths surrounding sunscreen—mostly perpetuated by people who aren't quite sure what they're talking about. Dermatologist advice obviously holds more water than that of a beauty vlogger; "Why Your Chemical Sunscreen Is Destroying Your Skin" is a much sexier headline than "Some Ingredients Are Considered Better In Your Sunscreen Than Others (But Ultimately, Let Your Skin Feel It Out)"; or consider that one friend who decries product altogether, praising instead the hazmat suit as the only true form of sunblock. No need to wear sunscreen at all when you're covered from head to toe, right?

Wrong. Sunscreen is not bad for you! But it's come a long way in the past decade or so, with better technology and increased regulation driven by more knowledge about UVA-UVB-related damage and a savvier consumer. Hey, that's you! Here's to a savvier-er you. In celebration, ITG has facilitated a sunscreen mythbusting session of sorts. Hold on to your zinc oxide:

Myth: I'm literally going from home to work to home—not the beach—and I don't need to wear sunscreen.
Mythical. "People think they only get sun damage from laying out or going to the beach, but this isn’t true," said Dr. Jeannette Graf, a dermatologist who practices in New York. "If you’re walking outside your house to the garbage can, or if you’re inside by the window reading, you’re getting sun exposure. You have to wear sunscreen every single day of the year. Even if it’s a cloudy, snowy, rainy, winter day." Simple enough. Myth, busted.

Myth: Physical sunscreen is safer than chemical sunscreen. If I can't eat it, I shouldn't put it on my face.
Sunscreen tends to be the blanket term for SPF products, but it actually relates to chemical sunscreen, which is an SPF product that uses one of several chemical compounds as its protective agent—avobenzone is a popular ingredient, for example. Sunblock, or physical sunscreen, uses—can you guess?—physical agents like zinc and titanium oxides. Both are totally safe. Vanessa Maia, an aesthetician at Noho's Great Jones Spa, agrees: "For my clients, I do believe both chemical and physical sunscreens are good and work."

The rhetoric surrounding "unsafe" sun protection chemicals comes from cases of unstable UVA blockers, but, as Dr. Graf points out, "[Those problems] have long been taken care of. I don't have problems with chemical-based sunscreens. Actually, for the body, I typically recommend waterproof and water-resistant formulas." As an astute ITG commenter once mentioned, water is a chemical—nothing to fear.

That said, some derms recommend physical over chemical for the face—but not because chemical is unsafe. Dr. Mary Ruth Buchness, another New York-based dermatologist, elaborates: "We really need to block our skin from UVA rays. I recommend physical for my patients, not because chemical is bad, but because I believe mineral sunblock is superior [coverage]." She and Dr. Graf both cite EltaMD UV Physical as a facial sunblock that is particularly good at it's job.

Myth: Any SPF higher than 50 is unnecessary and excessive.
Nope. Experts agree: the higher the number, the more coverage. A few years ago, in the wake of increasing SPF 75s and SPF 602s, the FDA put a limit on marketing all SPFs above 50—the label now reads 50+. But this doesn't put the cap at 50, and it also doesn't render anything above 50 as ineffective. "All of these experts who say everything over 50 will not do any good, I happen to disagree," says Dr. Graf. "The number represents UVB coverage, and to me, the higher the number, the better. The only issue is a false sense of security—people think if they're using a high-number SPF, they don't need to reapply, but they do, every 80 minutes." Dr. Buchness agrees, to an extent, but urges her patients to exercise caution. According to her, SPF 50+ is great and especially useful if you have photosensitive skin. If not, "you might not need higher than 30." Basically, trust your face.

More productive than scrutinzing your SPF's number is looking at its non-SPF ingredients—consider the antioxidant. Vanessa explains: "Even with SPF, some rays penetrate the skin and cause oxidation—free radical damage. Using an antioxidant product will stop that oxidation from going on. In other words, good protection should have an SPF factor and antioxidants to prevent and stop free radical damage." Vanessa prescribes Alchimie Forever's Daily Defense Cream SPF 23, and Dr. Graf suggests Avène's Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+ with vitamin E for the same reason. Layering your favorite SPF with an antioxidant serum works just as well, too.

This has been: The Facts.

Photo via ITG.

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