It’s summer as I write this — so tanning, sunburn, and sun safety information…and misinformation…are appropriately hot topics. But there’s much more to healthy skin than simply slathering on sunscreen during the summer months.
To help us bust some common skin health myths, we turned to Dr. Nicole Velez, Allegheny Health Network (AHN) director of dermatologic surgery and Mohs surgeon, and one of the PA Medical Society’s 2016 40 Under 40 Physicians in Pennsylvania. In Part 1 below, we’ll look specifically at five of the most common sun safety myths. In Part 2, we’ll debunk myths about skin cancer and then look at some tricky questions around acne and skin care products.
Verdict: Absolutely not.
“There’s no reason to try to get a base tan,” Dr. Velez says. “You actually don’t want to get any tan at all. No tan is a healthy tan, and no tan offers you protection from the sun.”
That applies whether you hit the tanning bed or lay outside before a trip to the beach. She adds that, although there are some obvious differences between simply tanning and burning, they cause a similar fundamental problem: DNA damage to your cells.
If you’re still bent on looking bronzed before you head to the beach, consider a spray or self-tanner instead. “Spray tans and self-tanners are relatively safe — although some people worry about the chemicals in them, in general, they’re pretty regulated,” Dr. Velez says. “Like most dermatologists, I would encourage one of those as a safer alternative than getting into a tanning bed.”
While we do get some vitamin D from the sun’s UVB rays, Dr. Velez points out that the guidelines for vitamin D specifically recommend getting your daily dose of vitamin D from food, such as fortified cereals or milk.
She adds that no studies have actually shown that sunscreen use causes a vitamin D deficiency. The reason for that is two-fold: “First, no one’s really wearing sunscreen all the time. And second, even the highest SPF values still allow some UVB rays to get to you.”
Dr. Velez says she hears this from patients all the time. But the truth is that sun damage doesn’t have a stopping point. We continue to get sun throughout our lives, and no matter how much exposure you experienced as a kid, you can continue to make the damage worse.
The group Dr. Velez has seen getting the most sun damage nowadays? Retired men. (Think extra time for golf outings, fishing, working on outdoor projects, playing outside with the grandkids, and other activities that involve extended periods of exposure to the sun.)
No matter what your previous sun damage history may be, it’s important to protect yourself any time you’ll be out in the sun. Good sun protection always makes a difference.
This might seem like solid sun safety math at first, but it’s focusing on the wrong variable. “No matter how high the SPF, sunscreen really only works for about two hours,” Dr. Velez explains.
Higher SPF is valuable — Dr. Velez recommends that everyone use a minimum of SPF 30. But even if you’re maxing out the SPF, you’ll still need to reapply your sunscreen about every two hours to ensure good protection.
If you live in a place like Pittsburgh, where Highmark Health is headquartered, you might be fooled into thinking you don’t need sun protection because…there just aren’t that many sunny days. But Dr. Velez emphasizes that even on cloudy days some of the sun’s UV rays come through. “Even if you’re going to be indoors all day, you’re still exposed to some UV rays,” she adds.
Before you dismiss “some UV rays” as not worth an extra ounce of prevention, consider this: 80% of skin aging, including wrinkles, is caused by the sun. “One of the best things you can do to prevent signs of aging with your skin is to wear sunblock every day,” Dr. Velez says. She adds that applying a moisturizer that contains SPF, even just once in the morning, will go a long way toward protecting you from those sneaky UV rays.
If you found this article useful, be sure to read Part 2 as well. You can also find more tips from Dr. Velez in our comprehensive “Ask a Doc” with her on skin safety, in this live video interview from 2016, and by following her on Twitter @thedermdoctor.
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