woman applying sunscreen to her limbs

Here’s What to Know Before Believing Those Anti-Sunscreen TikToks

06.25.2024 — Annie Tomlin

TikTok is driving a lot of conversations about sunscreen. That’s good news… sort of. More people are talking about protecting our skin from the sun’s UV rays—which is great, because most skin cancers are preventable. But there’s bad news, too. Turns out that a lot of us aren’t getting the facts straight. According to a new survey from the Orlando Health Cancer Institute, about one in seven young adults believes that sunscreen is worse for your health than sun damage, and nearly one in four drinking lots of water will prevent a sunburn. Here’s the thing, though: Both of those claims are absolutely, totally, 100 percent false.

In reality, sun exposure can cause skin cancer — including melanoma, which can be deadly. That’s why it’s so important to know everything under the sun. To get clear on sun protection, we turned to Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with practices in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, to wade through the sunscreen myths (and the facts!) around sun protection.

Myth or fact: Broad-spectrum sunscreen is best

It’s a fact: Broad-spectrum formulas protect against both types of ultraviolet rays. “Broad-based protection against UVA/UVB is key,” says Dr. Shamban. But the SPF number (aka the sun protection factor, which indicates how well a formula protects skin from a burn) matters, too. Aim for SPF 30, which filters 95% or more of ultraviolet rays. It’s totally fine to bypass high-SPF formulas, by the way. “Buying 50 or 100 SPF, which may cost considerably more, will only provide maybe 2% more protection,” says Dr. Shamban, “so it is not truly necessary regardless of the conditions.”

Myth or fact: Applying sunscreen every morning provides all-day protection

Myth. Although it’s smart to apply sunscreen before you leave the house, it can wear off or become less effective over time. To protect your skin, reapply as the day goes on. “Reapplication is important to keep the maximum protection,” Dr. Shamban says. “While a regular work day or weekday may only require reapplication at lunch and/or mid-afternoon, a full sun exposure day or beach day should be every hour or so.” If you’re swimming, note that “water-resistant” sunscreen is effective for 40 minutes in the water, while “very water resistant” sunscreen is effective for 80 minutes. Reapply, reapply, reapply.

Myth or fact: Last year’s leftover sunscreen is fine to use this year

This one is true… with a pretty significant caveat. “Officially, you can use your sunscreen next year or even two years later,” Dr. Shamban says. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration requires sunscreen formulas to be clinically tested to remain at original strength for up to three years. In theory, last year’s sunscreen should still work.

But in the real world, most of us are tossing sunscreens in our beach bags, keeping a tube in our cars, or letting sunscreen cook near the pool — and all of that can change the formula’s effectiveness. “The longer the product sits, varying temperatures, exposure to light, exposure to oxygen or contaminants, and other factors increase chances that it may be less effective,” Dr. Shamban says. Changes in smell, texture, color, or separation are all signs to toss that tube (yes, even if the expiration date hasn’t passed).

Besides, unless you’re using an industrial-sized bottle of sunscreen, you’ll probably need to re-up your sunscreen regularly. “I would be more concerned if your product lasts two to three years,” Dr. Shamban notes, “simply because it means you are not using it often enough!” TL;DR: If you haven’t bought new sunscreen this summer, it’s probably time.

Myth or fact: All sunscreen formats give equal protection

This one’s a little fuzzy. Technically, a SPF 30 lotion provides the same protection as a SPF 30 powder. But to get that same level of protection, you’d have to apply much more powder than lotion. “Not all formats are created equally, but the best part of the range of options is finding what you like and will use consistently,” Dr. Shamban says. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Lotion or oil: This is the best option to ensure the fullest coverage, says Dr. Shamban.
  • Mist or spray: “Mist or spray can be used throughout the day for quick touchups,” Dr. Shamban says. “But keep in mind that it is less accurate coverage.”
  • Gel or serum: These are good options for oily facial skin, Dr. Shamban says. Or try a light lotion that is water based, oil-free and/or non-comedogenic, she adds.
  • Stick: A stick sunscreen can be good for areas like ears or around the eyes, since the thicker product is unlikely to run. Skip it if your skin is oily, though—Dr. Shamban says that stick formulas can be too occlusive for this skin type.
  • Powder: This one’s a good option for your hairline (if you don’t have a hat). “A powder or a mist / spray on the part helps to protect both hair and scalp,” Dr Shamban says, “but is certainly not adequate for full-face or body protection.” You can also use a mineral powder for eyelids or touch-ups, but again, it’s not enough for full-coverage protection.

Myth or fact: Mineral sunscreens always look chalky on dark skin tones

Myth. It’s true that some mineral sunscreens can leave white streaks, but some newer formulations have technology that makes the protective minerals disappear into all skin tones. “The minerals [are] in tiny-sized particles that can blend, which has opened options for all skin tones to wear mineral sunscreen,” Dr. Shamban says. Three she recommends for melanin-rich skin are La Roche Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen, Elta MD UV Elements, and Supergoop! Mineral Mattescreen Sunscreen. (We’re also fans of Relevant: Your Skin Seen One & Done Everyday Cream and Unsun Everyday Mineral Tinted Sunscreen, which is offered in two tints.)

Myth or fact: All sunscreens are legit

Myth. Unfortunately, there are quite a few sketchy online suppliers offering deals on popular formulas—but what you get may not provide adequate sun protection. “Gray-market, third-party and even certain Amazon market sellers are all buyer-beware bargains,” Dr. Shamban says. “Sunscreen is expensive. However, don’t try to save a buck and risk your skin health. Period.” She recommends buying directly from a dermatology office, from authorized retailers such as Dermstore, or at well-known retailers such as Target, Costco, Ulta, Sephora, and Nordstrom.

Dr. Shamban notes that internationally, there are solid innovations in sun protection that aren’t available in the United States due to FDA regulations. “The Aussie, Asian or European brands can be hard to find or buy legitimately,” Dr. Shamban says. “Some of their websites do sell and ship to the US, but even so, it is hard to verify they are the real product.” Amazon merchants, she adds, offer a lot of popular international sunscreens, but it’s difficult to decipher whether the goods are expired or even counterfeit.

Myth or fact: Sunscreen is all you need for protection

Myth. Sunscreen is a necessary part of shielding your skin, but think of it as one component of a larger sun-protection system. Dr. Shamban recommends wearing hats, quality UV-protective sun lenses, UPF-rated clothing, full-body swimsuits and/or rash guards—and even a protective face shield. (“You may look like Darth Vader, but your skin will thank you later,” she says.) And don’t discount the value of seeking shade, avoiding sun exposure during peak UV index days, and avoiding sun exposure during the peak hours of 11am to 3pm.

If this sounds like a lot, consider how much more inconvenient it would be to deal with a painful sunburn or to undergo surgery for skin cancer. It doesn’t take much effort to make sun protection a regular habit—and in the long run, it’s easier than ignoring it altogether. After all, says Dr. Shamban, “It’s much easier to protect, maintain, or retain than repair and reclaim after significant damage.”

Photo by RF._.studio
  • Annie is part of the Frenshe East Coast team. In her spare time, she enjoys working on her 100-year-old home, vegetable gardening, and pushing for climate mobilization.

Annie Tomlin
Annie is part of the Frenshe East Coast team. In her spare time, she enjoys working on her 100-year-old home, vegetable gardening, and pushing for climate mobilization.