HikingOutdoors

Five Myths About Sunscreen

Woman applying sunscreen

Anyone who loves being outdoors, whether it be hiking or camping or anything really, should also be wise about caring for their skin. Modern sunscreen is more effective than ever, but there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about what sunscreen does and does not do for you. 

Here are four myths about sunscreen and how to keep your skin healthy and protected on your next outdoor adventure.

Myth 1: You Don’t Always Need Sunscreen

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Image by momnoi from Getty

Many people believe sunscreen is only necessary on bright, sunny days or when they’re spending time in direct sunlight.

The truth is, ultraviolet radiation is harmful, no matter how much of your skin is exposed or how overcast it is. Unfortunately, clouds help your skin feel cooler, but they only filter or block less than 25% of the harmful UV rays that can cause skin cancer. 

So, no matter how sunny or overcast it is outside, your skin will still be exposed to harmful ultraviolet rays, and you should wear sunscreen.

Myth 2: One Application of Sunscreen Is Enough to Protect You All Day

Not nearly as many people believe this myth now, but it’s still worth mentioning. The truth is that one application of sunscreen is not enough for your all-day adventures. Sunscreen works by breaking down in the sunlight, so it stops protecting your skin after about two hours

For the best protection, you should put sunscreen on all exposed skin 30 minutes before heading outdoors (don’t forget the tops of your ears and your hairline). Reapply sunscreen at least every two to three hours throughout the day. 

To get the full protection from your sunscreen, you should use about one ounce of sunscreen per application. For reference, that’s about one shot glass worth of sunscreen. Most people use far less than that.

If you’re “screening up” as you should, a family of four will go through at least one four-ounce bottle of sunscreen during a day of outdoor adventure. 

Myth 3: All Sunscreen Is the Same

sun protection - mother put sunblock cream on little daughter face
Image by Nadezhda1906 from Getty

People often use “sunscreen” and “sunblock” interchangeably, and a common assumption is that the only difference among sunscreen options is the SPF number. The truth is there are actually two kinds of sun protection on the market, and some sunscreens use different ingredients than others. 

Sunscreen uses chemicals in the formula that absorb the harmful UV rays before they damage the dermal layers of your skin. Common sunscreen ingredients include avobenzone, oxybenzone, and para-aminobenzoic acid. All these chemicals absorb and break down ultraviolet radiation from the sun. 

Sunblock, on the other hand, stays on top of your skin and creates a barrier, so the UV rays don’t even penetrate. Sunblock usually includes zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which reflect the harmful rays. 

Many sun protection brands use a mix of sunscreen and sunblock chemicals—that’s what “broad spectrum” means. Pure sunblock tends to be more noticeable and opaque on the skin. 

So, which one do you choose? The Skin Cancer Foundation says your skin type should help you decide. Children and people with very fair or sensitive skin should use sunblock with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. 

If you are allergy-prone or you have a skin condition like rosacea, avoid products that have fragrances, oxybenzone, or para-aminobenzoic acid. These chemicals and ingredients can irritate sensitive skin or cause skin allergies to flare up.  

Myth 4: Higher SPF Means More Protection

kids playing under a beach umbrella
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

When you’re standing in the store, trying to decide which sunscreen to buy, it seems logical that the sunscreen with SPF 50 will offer more protection than the SPF 15 option.

After all, 50 is greater than 15. But, the truth is sunscreen doesn’t really work that way, and most experts say sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50 aren’t worth it. 

SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor,” and it tells you how long the UVB rays will take to make your skin red compared to the amount of time without sun protection. So, if you choose the SPF 50, it will take about 50 times longer for your skin to get red than if you went without sunscreen. 

Higher SPF sun protection is only marginally better at protecting you from damaging UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays while SPF 50 blocks about 98% of UVB rays. But that’s only measuring the UVB rays. SPF has nothing to do with the harmful, cancer-causing UVA radiation. 

The United States doesn’t have a labeling system to tell consumers how much protection from UVA radiation their sunscreen gives them. That means your SPF 75 sunscreen protects you from getting sunburned but may leave you completely exposed to UVA radiation.

If you plan to be outdoors for a while, you should choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Sunscreen with an SPF between 30 and 50 and at least 15% zinc oxide offers enough UVA and UVB protection for most people. You should also cover up with lightweight clothing, wear a hat, and seek shade when possible.

No matter what SPF you choose, you should reapply every two hours and after swimming, toweling off, or sweating a lot. 

Myth 5: You Don’t Need to Reapply Waterproof Sunscreen After Being in the Water

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Image by DisobeyArt from Getty

Did you know under the new FDA guidelines, it’s illegal for sunscreen to be labeled waterproof? Calling sunscreen “waterproof” implies that you are still protected from harmful UVA and UVB radiation even after going for a swim or splashing around in the lake. 

Waterproof sunscreens are more water-resistant than standard sunscreens because they are oil-based and don’t wash off as quickly. But even waterproof sunscreen wears off more quickly when wet. 

If you are swimming or sweating a lot, you should reapply your sunscreen every hour instead of every two to three hours. You should also let the sunscreen absorb into your skin for at least 10 to 15 minutes before getting into the water. 


Do you have a favorite sunscreen or sun protection product that you use for your outdoor adventures? Share in the comments!

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