The sun emits radiation—in the form of electromagnetic rays—which reaches you here on earth. While the visible part of this spectrum lights up your world, other parts of the spectrum including ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) have varying effects. UVB rays cause you to tan and burn, and also stimulate the production of Vitamin D. UVA rays are longer in wavelength than UVB and penetrate deeper into your skin; while not burning you or tanning you, UVA may just be responsible for a greater share of the blame in the aging of your skin than UVB.
Since there is a lot of misinformation out there, misconceptions about sun exposure persist. The following are some common myths about sun exposure and the facts to set the record straight.
Myth #1: A Tan Is Healthy
In actuality, a tan is a sign of skin damage. Skin tans in response to sun damage to your skin. When UVB rays strike DNA in melanocytes, cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers are created. These pyrimidine dimers are a type of DNA damage, and it is this damage that catalyzes the production and release of melanin. This is how you tan. Skin tanning is a sign your skin cells and the structures of your skin have been damaged, even if redness or peeling was never present. You’re gaining skin color at the expense of your health.
Myth #2: A Little Sun Is Healthy
You may think if you didn’t burn, you didn’t sustain any damage. Or if you didn’t turn pink at all you weren’t harmed. This is false. Every second you are in the sun does some damage to your skin. Any amount of sun exposure is damaging.
Myth #3: Your Skin Is Dark So You’re Protected
Melanin is what gives skin its color, and melanin does protect your skin from the sun. But it doesn’t completely protect you—the sun still damages people with darker skin. Also, the darker your skin, the more difficult it is to tell when you are burning. Because people may think they are better protected if they have dark skin, they may also take less precautions regarding sun exposure and end up staying in the sun longer and more frequently—leading to more damage.
Furthermore, darker skin makes it more difficult to diagnose skin damage and identify pre-cancerous or cancerous growths. While people of color are less likely to develop skin cancer, skin cancer is more frequently found in late stages—and therefore more likely to be fatal—in people with darker skin color. It’s probably a good idea for everyone, including those with darker skin, to seek regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist.
Myth #4: You Don’t Burn So You Don’t Need Sun Protection
While melanin in the skin does help prevent sun damage, it doesn’t prevent all damage. It doesn’t matter if you burn or not: sun exposure still damages your skin, leading to aging, wrinkles, sun spots, and more serious consequences. You should still be cautious when in the sun regardless of whether or not you think you might burn.
Myth #5: Sun Exposure Early Or Late In The Day Is Safe
While UVB rays peak in intensity in the middle of the day, UVA rays remain fairly consistent in intensity from morning until evening. Likewise, the ability of UVA rays to damage your skin remains high throughout the day from morning until evening (not just during the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, but all day). This means that even when you are not tanning or getting burned by UVB rays, you may still be sustaining serious damage from UVA radiation—without ever realizing it!
Myth #6: Winter Sun Exposure Is Not Dangerous
Similar to sun exposure early or late in the day, UVB rays peak in intensity in the middle of the summer but wane in the winter, while the intensity of UVA rays remains relatively high year-round (including in the winter). Again, this means you can still damage your skin in the winter and may not even notice it until much later. Likewise, it is important to still take normal precautions regarding sun exposure in the winter.
Myth #7: If It Is Overcast You Can’t Get Burned
On cloudy days your skin is still being damaged. The majority of UVA rays penetrate clouds and fog, leading to sun damage possibly without any indication of the damage whatsoever. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds. Use the same caution regarding sun exposure on overcast days as sunny days.
Myth #8: You Need to Get Your Vitamin D From The Sun
One problem with getting Vitamin D from sun exposure is that, while you can stimulate the production of Vitamin D in the sun, you can’t do it without sustaining sun damage. The benefits and the detriments are inseparable. Also, you are able to get enough Vitamin D from your diet by eating certain foods including fortified milk and cereals, eggs (in the yolk with all the other nutrients), fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, meat (like grass-fed beef), mushrooms, liver, and cod liver oil. You can also get Vitamin D from multi-vitamins and other supplements.
Beyond food, most people get more than enough Vitamin D through regular, incidental sun exposure anyway. And even if you always wear sunscreen lotion, some amount of UVB rays still penetrates your skin and stimulates Vitamin D production. Furthermore, after a limited amount of sun exposure, Vitamin D production actually reaches its maximum and stops, with further UV exposure actually breaking down Vitamin D. For the majority of people, Vitamin D deficiency does not seem to be an issue at all. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation, and the American Cancer Society, adults and kids alike get plenty of Vitamin D from foods rich in Vitamin D, multi-vitamins, and everyday sun exposure. Yet while the optimal amount of Vitamin D is still being debated, any sun exposure increases skin aging and your risk of developing skin cancer. The tradeoff may or may not be worth the risk, but it seems the safest way to obtain Vitamin D is through diet and, if needed, supplements.
Myth #9: Sunscreen Lotion Does A Good Job of Protecting You
Not using sunscreen lotion while getting extensive sun exposure is probably worse than using sunscreen lotion. But there are many drawbacks, and even dangers, to using the average sunscreen lotion.
First of all, sunscreen lotions are not very effective against UVA rays. Topical sunscreens do block/absorb UVB, but do little to filter UVA, leaving you vulnerable to skin damage while you possibly spend more time in the sun.
Likewise, the SPF rating of sunscreen lotion only indicates UVB protection, not UVA protection at all. Even “broad spectrum” sunscreen lotions are misleading because the amount of UVA protection is not quantified whatsoever, and most sunscreen lotion isn’t very effective at blocking UVA rays anyway.
Additionally, most of the sunscreen ingredients approved by the FDA are also not chemically photo-stable. This means they break down over time in the sun, and can actually generate free radicals that cause skin damage (instead of preventing it).
Finally, many of the active ingredients in sunscreen lotions are also toxic. These chemicals can be absorbed by your skin and enter your bloodstream, causing unintended side-effects including disrupting the body’s natural hormone levels.
As another warning, the SPF ratings of sunscreens are determined in a lab with copious amounts of sunscreen lotion—much more than is regularly used by the average person. Sunscreen SPF ratings also assume regular reapplication in the sun. Water, sweat, and time all decrease sunscreen lotion’s effectiveness.
If you are going to use a sunscreen lotion, use one with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients, and make sure the lotion does not contain Vitamin A (retinal) or any Vitamin A derivatives (including retinol and retinyl palmitate), as they have been shown to be photo-unstable—breaking down in sunlight and causing more damage.
There’s more information about sunscreen lotion here:
Myth #10: Sunglasses Aren’t Important
While sunlight damages your skin, it also damages your eyes. Over the course of your life, exposure to UV light increases the likelihood of developing cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eye conditions (not to mention decreased vision). But the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation aren’t just present in the summer or when it is bright out; sun exposure in the winter, when it’s overcast, and in the morning and evening all can cause eye damage, and the results are cumulative. Protecting your eyes is necessary whenever you spend time outside in the daylight, all year round. When buying sunglasses make sure you get a pair that says it blocks 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays, or says UV 400 (which means it blocks all UVA and UVB rays).
Myth #11: Tanning Beds And Salons Are Safer Than Outdoor Sun Exposure
A controlled dose of radiation in a tanning bed is a high dose, and it can come at many times greater intensity than the dose you get being in the sun a comparable amount of time. Plus, compared to people who have never tanned indoors, people who use tanning salons have a higher risk of all types of skin cancers. Regardless, the ultraviolet radiation emitted from tanning beds contains the same harmful ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun; they are both hazardous.
Myth #12: Sun Damage Is Reversible
Every little bit of damage you sustain from the sun is cumulative; it can be prevented but it cannot be reversed. And it all adds up over time to cause skin aging, fine lines, wrinkles, sun spots, elastosis (the degradation of the elastic tissue of the skin), the breakdown of collagen, hyperpigmentation, and other more serious conditions including skin cancer.
Myth #13: You Are Fully Protected In The Shade
While you are receiving less sun exposure in the shade than if you were in direct sunlight, UV rays do reflect off of surfaces, and some surfaces reflect more than others. Sand, snow, and water all reflect the sun’s rays, so if you’re surrounded by these surfaces, even if you have coverage overhead, you are probably absorbing more ultraviolet rays than you think.
Myth #14: Glass Blocks Damaging UV Rays
While glass does block most UVB rays, UVA rays still penetrate through glass. And because you won’t normally tan behind glass, you might not even realize that damage has occurred. The indirect sun exposure you get in your car on the way to and from work is aging your skin. Similarly, use caution when sitting near windows. If you are often near a window exposed to the sun (such as in your car), make sure the window has the right tinting—which can help block UVA rays.
Myth #15: Your Diet Doesn’t Matter
While this is more likely than not something people don’t even think about, what you eat can in fact influence how your skin and eyes respond to ultraviolet radiation.
Many ingredients in foods have been shown to help protect skin and eyes from the sun, especially certain antioxidants including lycopene, lutein, astaxanthin, zeaxanthin, the polyphenols in green tea, and others. In general, ingesting enough healthy fat (including omega-3), and eating lots of colorful vegetables and fruits, can add some natural protection to your skin. For a mixture of these efficacious ingredients, you can also take an oral product called Sunsafe Rx to protect your skin from the sun.
Myth #16: Most Sun Exposure Occurs Early In Life, So Sun Exposure As An Adult Isn’t Very Significant
Actually, on average people get less than 25% of their lifetime sun exposure before the age of 18. Every bit of sun exposure adds up and can lead to adverse consequences. You should limit sun exposure and prevent sun damage at all ages.
Myth #17: It’s Black And White
It’s easy to think in clear-cut terms. Something is either good or bad. Oftentimes, however, this is not the case. In terms of sun exposure, we may think that the sun is OK for people with dark skin, but people with light skin need to be careful. Or a little sun exposure is good, but a lot is bad. What you should realize is that the good comes with the bad—at the same time! The Vitamin D that you produce in the sun comes at a price: sun damage and more aging to your skin. You can’t separate the two. Similarly, getting some sun exposure for fun, or to positively influence your mood, or because it feels good, can’t be separated from the fact that ultraviolet radiation is continuously bombarding your exposed skin and eyes. It is perfectly acceptable to get some sun exposure; who could imagine a world in which we never went outside during the day without a blanket over our head?! But understand that any sun exposure comes at a price. The magnitude of that price is up to you.
Summary: Protect Yourself From The Sun
Sun exposure damages your skin, and every little bit adds up. Avoid sun exposure when you can, and use caution when you’re in the sun. Cover up, and wear a hat and sunglasses. If necessary, use a sunscreen lotion with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and without other toxic chemicals. And consider using an oral sun defense pill like Sunsafe Rx.
Here are a few other tips on protecting yourself from the sun: