Myth vs. Reality: Sun Protection Edition

    We’re well into summer already, and there’s no doubt you’ve already been to the beach, gone swimming, or just been outside quite a bit. You’ve probably enjoyed the break from school or work responsibilities, the fun activities, the warm weather, the sun’s UV radiation penetrating your epidermis and triggering melanocytes to produce melanin…. Okay, maybe not that last one. Unfortunately, as large of a role as it plays in our daily lives, the sun (and how to stay safe while exposed to it) doesn’t take front and center in most people’s minds when thinking about their health. And beyond that, dozens of misconceptions exist about sun safety. However, we’ll only go into five of them here.

    Myth #1: I’m tan, dark-skinned, and/or don’t burn, so I’m safe in the sun.

    Reality: While sun damage might not be as evident as it would on someone fair-skinned who burns easily, that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the sun’s harmful UVA or UVB rays. Unfortunately, people of every race or ethnicity are susceptible to skin cancer to some degree, and assuming you don’t need sun protection can ultimately lead to more sun exposure, undetectable damage, or even a later diagnosis of skin cancer. Sun damage to the epidermis can occur even without visible signs like a sunburn or freckles.

    Myth #2: Getting a tan is healthy and can prevent further sun damage.

    Reality: According to Sunsafe Rx, “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 creation and release of melanin.” In short, a tan is not a positive like some people think — believing that it will prevent sunburns. While the melanin created may protect you from further sun damage, it was produced and released in reaction to harmful radiation from the sun. If your skin is naturally darker, that’s okay — great, even. You have slightly more natural protection from the sun in the form of melanin created naturally by your body, not in response to sun damage. In any case, if your skin tone gets much more tan than its natural color during the summer, that might signal that you need a bit more sun protection.

    Myth #3: Your skin can’t be damaged if it’s cloudy out, if you’re in the shade, or if it’s early or late in the day.

    Reality: Take it from me. It can. A couple of months ago, I went to the beach with a friend, and I was delighted to find that it was cloudy and rather cold out. I’m extremely pale and burn very easily, but my odds seemed fairly good, so I didn’t use sunscreen and stayed out all afternoon. Everything seemed fine at first, until the worst sunburn I’ve had in my life showed up a couple of hours after I got home — making it impossible to wear clothes comfortably for weeks. The same applies to being in the shade or outdoors earlier than 10am or later than 4pm when sunlight seems more indirect. Your chances of being burned or damaging your skin are lessened, but sunscreen and caution are still must-haves.

    Myth #4: Sun damage is reversible.

    Reality: Unfortunately, it’s not. Even when your tan or burn or freckles fade away and all visual indicators of sun damage seem to be gone, your skin sustains the cumulative effect of all your time outside in the sun. It’s still vulnerable to issues ranging from smaller cosmetic ones, like blemishes or sagging, to various types of skin cancer.

    Myth #5: Sunscreen alone is enough to protect you from the sun.

    Reality: Sunscreen helps, but it’s not enough on its own. Ideally, you should use a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 — although many sources recommend at least SPF 30. Your lip balm and other cosmetic products should include sun protection as well. Sunscreen should be reapplied every couple of hours, and it should be applied more often if you’ve been in the water since it will have been washed or toweled off. Its expiration date should always be checked to ensure if it’s still effective.

    But it doesn’t stop at sunscreen. Sunglasses with protection from both UVA and UVB rays are a must, and hats and long-sleeved clothing — though sometimes uncomfortable — can offer an extra barrier against UV radiation. Staying in the shade or indoors can also give you more protection.

     

    Ultimately, while reducing sun exposure is ideal, it’s impractical and probably downright impossible for those of you who spend a lot of time outside on a regular basis. But, a bit of awareness and caution can make a huge difference for your health a few years down the road.

    Susannah Sherwood
    Susannah Sherwood is a biochemistry major at Seattle University with a deep love for writing, reading, music, and coffee. She dreams of a future in which she can pursue her passion for science while making time for the causes and people she cares about.

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