Top 10 Skin-tillating Myths About the Sun

What You Thought You Knew About the Sun But Didn't

It’s really hot in here, here in Michigan that is, and it’s not a good hot. It has been hot and humid here in beautiful Metro Detroit, but the summer sun hasn’t been the only offending culprit. In fact, the bright sunny days have not had a chance to play a major role in the summer heat index this past week. Cloud cover has been the dominant factor, accompanied by torrential deluges and downpours of rain. This has resulted in such extreme humidity that it makes it even hard to breathe.

But it is summer after all, isn’t it? Whether you’re up north by the lake, at a tropical beach, or hiking out west, practicing safe-sun habits is a must.  In the photo above, you can see my family and me at Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2007 on one of our many summer hiking vacations.  You can bet that we Honets were slathered in sunscreen, along with keeping our sun-protective hats on to help shield our faces (at least three out of the four of us).

So let’s talk “sun,” because summer means spending more time in the sun, and sun means sun protection in my professional opinion, no matter the amount of cloud cover. Whether it is cloudy and gray or super sunny and bright, we still need to be mindful and smart in the sun.

On that note, let’s bust some myths about the sun. Here are my Top 10 Skin-tillating Myths About the Sun.

  1. You can’t sunburn under water. Many people think that if you’re underwater, the immersed parts of your body can’t get sunburned or sun damaged. This is just not true. Water actually can transmit quite a bit of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Over 40% of the burning UVB rays can penetrate past 3 feet deep. In fact, UVA rays can penetrate farther and stay potent into deeper waters, which is quite frightening because it is this UVA component that puts you at higher risk for malignant melanoma. Not only can you get a sunburn, you can get quite a bit of sun damage, too. The cooling effect of being immersed in water also makes you less aware of the sun. Plus, the added reflection off the surface of the water can cause magnified sun exposure back to your unimmersed skin. Wear your sunscreen on all exposed parts of your body, submerged or not. And don’t forget to reapply every 1.5 to 2 hours.
  2. You can’t get a sunburn on a cloudy day. Just like the water example, cloudy days transmit a huge amount of the sun’s damaging rays. In fact, 70-80% of the sun’s rays can go right through clouds and fog. Many people experience a bad sunburn because they figure that they couldn’t get burned because of the clouds. Part of the confusion is that you don’t feel hot on an overcast day, so you figure you’re safe. Not so. A sunburn on a cloudy day is a very real thing. This actually happened to one of my staff members (who shall remain nameless) when on her last day of vacation, she chose to forgo her SPF because it was so cloudy. And that very last day of vacation was when she burned badly.
  3. Layering SPFs on top of each other gives you more protection. Nope on this one, too. An SPF of 15 applied on top of an SPF of 15 doesn’t equal an SPF of 30. The true final SPF is still only just a 15.
  4. Applying sunscreen in the morning protects you all day. Sunscreen does wear off. It evaporates off, rubs off, sweats off. And it just plain wears off after some amount of time. I agree that putting it on in the morning is good, but if you are sun sensitive, have a history of skin cancer or pre-cancer, are taking medications that make you photosensitive, or have a pre-disposing condition like lupus that makes you more sensitive, the prudent thing to do is to reapply before going out in the sun again. Fortunately for us women who wear makeup, there are mineral powder sunscreens today that are not only very effective, but are cosmetically extremely elegant to layer on top. Nowadays, there is no excuse for failing to be proactively sun protective.
  5. You can’t get sunburned on a cold day. Although it is true that winter sun is less potent, the sun can still wreak havoc and cause sun damage on cold days. You can even get frank sunburn during the winter months if unprotected. And of course, skiing at high altitudes unprotected on a sunny day is a guarantee for burning your face, especially your ears and nose. Not only are the sun’s rays magnified at higher altitudes, but their reflection off of beautiful white snow mounds is double trouble. It’s not surprising that professional skiers are notoriously sun damaged.
  6. A T-shirt can give your skin enough protection from the sun. A medium-weight, white T-shirt, shockingly enough, can allow up to 20% of the sun’s damaging rays through. On the average, a white T-shirt has a UPF of only about 7. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor and specifies how much of the sun’s UV rays are potentially absorbed, thereby deflecting or absorbing that amount away from your skin. A sun-protective piece of clothing with a rating of 50 will allow only 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays to pass through, or only 2%. I have had patients who have literally gotten a tan-line through their T-shirt, when they thought they were impervious to the sun. On the other hand, there are numerous clothing lines on the market that specialize in sun-protective clothing with potent UPF that can protect your skin from the sun effectively.
  7. Pre-tanning is the best way to protect your skin from sunburn. Many people think that getting a base tan, whether from tanning booths or naturally from the sun, is the way to “safe” tanning in the sun. This is not only untrue, but nearly every skin type is susceptible to sun damage and skin cancer, no matter how fair or dark their skin is. Cumulative sun exposure not only causes wrinkling, laxity, leathery texture, and uneven pigmentation, it also causes skin cancer. You don’t have to always burn to get skin cancer. And don’t even get me started about tanning booths. Just read Senada’s and my past blog post “Melanoma and the Myth of a Healthy Tan” to learn that tanning booths are dangerous, and before the age of 30, can increase your risk for malignant melanoma by 75%.
  8. Getting the golden-tan glow from self-tanners protects you from burning in the sun. This probably is obvious to most, but remember, the fake tanned glow from a bottle does nothing for sun protection. Yes, your spray tan will help you look fantastic, sporting the bronzed beach-bum look, but you will burn just as easily as your Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost self of winter.
  9. Spray sunscreen will get you great protection and coverage. This is certainly accurate on a rudimentary level, especially because today’s sunscreen sprays are portable and very convenient to use. But once sprayed liberally on your skin, you must make sure you follow it up by rubbing it into your skin to insure sufficient coverage. Spraying alone doesn’t allow for enough consistent and reliable coverage. You must not only spray the sunscreen generously, but you should also rub it in to evenly distribute it.
  10. If you have dark skin, you don’t have to wear sunscreen. Although it is true that sunburn and sun damage do not happen as readily or as frequently in darker-skinned individuals as they do in lighter skin, they are still susceptible to skin cancer and photodamage. No matter your skin type, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology should be worn year round.

The bottom line is safe sun is the best sun, so wear your sunscreen. Wherever your summer fun takes you, protect and love your skin, and your skin will protect and love you back.

Happy, Healthy Skin!

–Dr. H

Read more about the sun and its effects on the skin:

“Sun Protection: The Basics”

“The SPF Controversy”

“To Sun or Not to Sun: Is There a Safe Way?

“Is Your Skin Summer Ready?”

“Melanoma and the Myth of a Healthy Tan”

“It’s Melanoma Monday”

Top 10 Skin-tillating Myths About the Sun