Testing our Sun Smarts

Misconceptions abound about sun exposure. Here are the five biggest—and the reality behind them:

  • Getting a “base tan” is a good way to avoid sunburn (and sun damage).
    “Trying to save your skin through preemptive tanning is an exercise in insanity”, says Dr. Fox. “A tan gives the equivalent of an SPF 4—not a lot of protection, and certainly not worth the damage and risk. The base tan itself causes skin damage.” Repeated exposure to UV radiation—even if it’s done with good intentions—leads to wrinkling and possibly cancer later in life.
  • You need sun exposure to get the Vitamin D your body needs.
    A big part of this misconception comes from news reports on sunlight’s role in producing Vitamin D, which the body uses to help build bone. “But these reports are misleading”, Dr. Fox says.  “Vitamin D is essential,” he says, “but sun exposure is not essential for Vitamin D production.”  “Instead”, he says, “you should eat a healthy diet, with plenty of natural and fortified foods, and take a supplement of up to 1000 units of Vitamin D to make up for any dietary shortfalls.”
  • Tanning beds have gotten a bad rap, but they’re still better than natural sunlight.
    Nearly 30 million Americans visit tanning salons every year, and only about one-third of adults realize they’re unsafe. “However, indoor tanning is associated with a seventy-five percent increase in the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer”, says Dr. Fox. Many states have recently put restrictions on tanning beds for people under age 18 – some states now require parental consent and other states are considering banning tanning beds altogether for minors.
  • Sunscreen with SPF 30 gives twice the protection of SPF 15. And SPF 90 delivers three times as much as SPF 30—enough to keep you safe on the planet Mercury.
    “There are a few things wrong with this theory”, says Dr. Fox. First of all, the sun protection factor, or SPF, refers to UVB rays. To get UVA protection, you need a sunscreen labeled ’broad spectrum‘ or one that contains a physical block like titanium dioxide. Secondly, UVB protection doesn’t increase proportionately with the SPF number. For example, SPF 30 screens about ninety-seven percent of the UVB rays, whereas SPF 15 screens ninety-three percent (SPF 2 stops about only fifty percent).  “The difference in protection between SPF 30 and anything higher is relatively negligible”, reports Dr. Fox.
    “Another factor here is application”, adds Dr. Fox. Using too little or reapplying too infrequently effectively reduces a product’s SPF—and leaves you exposed to sun damage. “The rule is to apply about an ounce—an amount equal to that which would fill a standard shot glass—over your body and to reapply it every two hours, more often if you’re swimming, sweating or playing sports,” he advises. “Don’t let an astronomical SPF number give you a false sense of security.
  • Let’s face it: You look better—and healthier—with a tan.
    Many associate a suntan with wealth and success. “But a tan is nothing more than a record of sun damage”, says Dr. Fox. “It’s the evidence of all the ultraviolet radiation that your skin has been exposed to—and had to protect itself against.” Dr. Fox suggests using a self-tanner (with sunscreen, of course). “You’ll get that tanned look, but without the damage”, recommends Dr. Fox.

Joshua L. Fox, M.D., F.A.A.D., is a New York-based dermatologist and founder/director of Advanced Dermatology, PC with offices in Roslyn Heights, Fresh Meadows and NYC. 516-625-6222. www.advanceddermatologypc.com.

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