OK, But Is Sunbathing Really THAT Bad? Here's The Realistic Answer

Lying on the beach or poolside striving to get a golden tan may be one of your favorite summer activities — even though you probably know getting too much sun is risky, especially if you don’t take the right precautions.

While dermatologists urge caution about spending time in the sun, they recognize that people are still likely going to sunbathe. About two-thirds of Americans said they got a tan last year, and many incorrectly believe a base tan will prevent sunburns and that tanning is safe as long as you don’t burn, according to a new American Academy of Dermatology survey.

“Regardless of past sunburns, the fact that ultraviolet light causes skin cancer, including melanoma, people are still going to sunbathe this summer,” said Dr. Hope Mitchell, an Ohio-based board-certified dermatologist. “It’s crucial to recognize these risks and others that are related to sunbathing.”

Even short periods of sun exposure and minor sunburns can add up over time and damage your skin, she said.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Hale, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, told HuffPost. It can affect anyone of any skin tone, and it’s often diagnosed in later stages in people with darker skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

However, skin cancer is preventable, Hale said. “It’s easy to apply a sunscreen you like, stay in the shade as much as possible, and enjoy the summer with peace of mind.”

As you plan your next beach trip, here’s what you should know about how bad sunbathing truly is and the best way to protect your skin as you spend time outdoors.

How risky is sunbathing?

Basking in the sun can stimulate the brain’s pleasure center and trigger the release of endorphins, also known as “feel-good hormones,” explained Dr.Carmen Castilla, a board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group. “People can actually become addicted to the sun.”

But when your skin is exposed to the sun, it absorbs ultraviolet radiation, Mitchell said. This damages the DNA in your skin cells, which speeds up the aging process, leading to wrinkles and sun spots and increasing your risk for skin cancer.

Melanin, a chemical that produces pigment in your skin, protects against UV damage, Castilla said. So when your skin tans in the sun, it’s actually a sign that the skin is trying to protect itself from further UV damage.

“But it’s a flawed defense mechanism that ultimately puts your skin health at risk,” Mitchell said. “While a tan might give you a temporary glow, it’s not worth the long-term consequences.”

UV radiation is a known carcinogen, and overexposure is what causes skin cancer, Hale said.

“We know that getting five or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma,” a dangerous form of skin cancer, she added. Melanoma is considered more dangerous because it can easily spread to other organs if it’s not treated early.

Castilla said there’s a misconception that because people with darker skin tones have higher amounts of melanin, they don’t develop skin cancer or get sunburned.

“This is entirely not true,” she emphasized. Anyone, no matter their skin tone, is at risk for skin cancer or sunburns from sun exposure.

There is a belief that Black skin's melanin provides natural protection from the sun's UV rays. It doesn't.

Steve Mason via Getty Images

There is a belief that Black skin’s melanin provides natural protection from the sun’s UV rays. It doesn’t.

The sun isn’t the best source of vitamin D.

There’s been lots of talk about vitamin D lately, as many Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, research shows.

While sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, dermatologists say spending time in the sun isn’t the most effective way to increase your intake of the vitamin. And you should never forgo sunscreen. Research shows that wearing sunscreen likely doesn’t interfere with the skin’s vitamin D production.

Always approach sun exposure with skin cancer prevention in mind, Hale emphasized.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) doesn’t recommend relying on the sun or indoor tanning to get vitamin D. Instead, the organization suggests food sources, such as dairy and fish, or supplements to increase your intake.

Dermatologists suggest using self-tanners instead.

If a “sun-kissed glow” is your goal, Mitchell suggests a sunless tanning option, including spray tans and self-tanners. “These products provide a bronzed look without exposing your skin to harmful UV radiation,” she said.

Self-tanning products with dihydroxyacetone (DHA) or erythrulose react with the top layer of skin to temporarily tan the skin, Castilla said. Some are labeled “gradual tan,” which means they contain lower concentrations of these substances and let you build color, she added.

Look for products that “prioritize skin health, since moisturized, smooth skin will look the best,” Hale said. She suggests items containing natural oils and hyaluronic acid.

Be sure to follow the directions on the product for the best results, Mitchell said.

But if you’re going to sunbathe, here’s what to do.

“When it comes to chilling by the pool or soaking up some extra sunshine outdoors, it’s all about balance and protection,” Mitchell said.

That starts by wearing a generous amount of sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, she said. Look for sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection, which means they guard against both UVA and UVB rays, Hale added.

Don’t forget to smear sunscreen on the tops of your ears, back of your neck, bottoms of your feet, or any other area that’s exposed to the sun, Castilla said. “There’s nothing worse than walking on sunburned feet.”

Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or more frequently if you’re swimming, sweating or towel-drying your skin, Mitchell said.

Along with sunscreen, take breaks in the shade and wear sun-protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, Hale said. And drink plenty of water.

“Lastly, give your skin some love by checking for any changes regularly,” Mitchell said. “Your skin is your body’s largest organ, so treating it with care and protection is paramount for overall health and well-being.”

Want to protect yourself? Snag one of these reviewer-beloved sunscreens.

HuffPost and its publishing partners may receive a commission from some purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently curated by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Mineral Sunscreens

Sephora

Summer Fridays ShadeDrops Mineral Milk Sunscreen SPF 30

Alongside our readers, both Pamela Anderson and Hailey Bieber are fans of Summer Fridays’ ShadeDrops SPF 30 mineral sunscreen. It’s a great option for anyone looking for a lightweight, naturally radiant finish that protects from UV rays while also providing nourishing ingredients to the skin. Made with vegan and cruelty-free ingredients, this sunscreen is formulated with zinc oxide, squalane, chamomile and an antioxidant blend of vitamin E and ethyl ferulate. They work together to shield the skin from sun damage and to hydrate, soften and smooth the skin and protect against further damage from free radicals.

Sephora

Supergoop! Mineral Sheer Screen SPF 30

Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, recommended this reader-fave screenie. “This is a 100% mineral sunscreen product that offers SPF 30 protection,” Camp said. “The labeling also includes information about protection from UVA radiation, PA (protection grade of UVA), which many sunscreens do not report.” It also shields the skin from blue light. It’s completely sheer so you don’t have to worry about a white cast and has a lightweight finish that won’t weigh your skin down.

Amazon

Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face mineral sunscreen SPF 50

“This lightweight, non-greasy product provides SPF 50 protection and contains zinc oxide as the active ingredient,” Camp said. It’s specially formulated with antioxidants to be water-resistant, is naturally sourced and dries down quickly without leaving a greasy finish.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Chemical Sunscreens

Sephora

Supergoop! Glow Screen SPF 40

High on my personal list of sunscreen essentials is Supergoop! Glow Screen, and I’m thrilled to see it is one of our readers’ top picks from our chemical sunscreen story. It’s what I reach for when I want a hint of tint and shimmer. It’s basically your skin, but better — plus sun protection. It’s available in four different shades and has a slightly heavier finish than other chemical sunscreens, in part because of the tint component. But since it essentially replaces foundation for me, I don’t mind that it isn’t as lightweight as others. The pearlescent finish gives skin an immediate glow while hyaluronic acid and niacinamide hydrate, nurture and help to diminish the look of common signs of aging. This was also a top reader pick from our article featuring sunscreens with anti-aging ingredients!

Dermstore

SkinCeuticals Daily Brightening UV Defense sunscreen

Along with the rest of the SkinCeuticals line, HuffPost readers swarm to this popular, luxurious sunscreen. Not only does the chemical formulation protect against sun damage, it claims to actively work to diminish the look of discoloration, helping to brighten and even out skin tone thanks to ingredients like tranexamic acid and niacinamide. Reflective pigments help to give the skin an immediate glow, making it ideal for someone looking to perk up their skin quickly and visibly. This was also a top pick from our article about the best sunscreens with anti-aging ingredients!

Stylevana

Beauty of Joseon probiotic SPF 50+

If you’re a fan of Korean beauty products, then you’re going to want to stock up on this gorgeous sunscreen. It’s wildly popular among the skin care set, with everyone from beauty lovers to influencers touting its skin-enhancing abilities. It’s my go-to daily sunscreen — primarily because it perfectly splits the difference between a fluid and a cream — and I’m thrilled to see it top the chemical sunscreen list of faves. It has a bit more grip than a fluid finish but doesn’t feel as heavy or oily as a full-on cream or moisturizer. I rarely get more compliments than when I head out wearing this sunscreen and a touch of concealer. As with all Korean beauty products, it’s important to remember to only purchase via reputable sites like Stylevana. It does take about two to three weeks to arrive, so I usually order two at a time to tide me over, but each tube lasts around three months, making it worth the already low price and shipping wait time.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Korean And Japanese Beauty Sunscreens

Amazon

Round Lab moisturizing birch juice sun cream

According to Flores’ previous article on Korean and Japanese beauty sunscreens, “this hydrating daily sun cream by Round Lab is lightweight, non-greasy and fast-absorbing and doesn’t leave a white cast. The broad-spectrum SPF 50 formula feels cool and refreshing on the skin and contains both birch tree sap and hyaluronic acid to help keep skin moisturized throughout the day.” It was one of HuffPost readers’ top three picks and with good reason!

Amazon

Biore UV Aqua Rich Sunscreen Water Essence facial sunscreen

Shopping writer Tessa Flores pointed out in previous coverage that, “A prime example of water-based Japanese sunscreens, Bioré UV’s Aqua Rich SPF 50 sun essence is a feather-light and oil-free gel formula that feels virtually undetectable on the skin and is compatible with all skin types including those who are acne-prone. It’s infused with hyaluronic acid for lasting hydration and breathable protection that layers seamlessly under makeup.” No wonder HuffPost readers couldn’t get enough.

Stylevana

Isntree hyaluronic acid watery sun gel

Both Flores and myself have covered this reader-beloved sunscreen in the past. It’s great for people with dry skin and anyone who loves a dewy (not greasy) finish. I love that is white-cast-free and has hydrating ingredients including eight different types of hyaluronic acid to help strengthen the moisture barrier and keep skin hydrated all day long. It boasts a hypoallergenic formula that is great for those with sensitive or compromised skin, and has been a popular pick among K-beauty fans for many years.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Water-Resistant Sunscreens

Amazon

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk sunscreen SPF 60

If you’re as big a fan of French pharmacy beauty products as I am (and according to our data, you are), try La Roche-Posay’s various sunscreens. In my opinion, their Anthelios melt-in sunscreen is by far their most exciting formulation. This super lightweight SPF truly does melt into the skin, leaving it dewy, natural-looking and non-greasy while providing a whopping SPF 100 protection that is also water-resistant. Your skin will love it.

Dermstore

SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense mineral sunscreen

Skin care devotees will likely be familiar with SkinCeuticals’ line of high-end serums and creams, but did you know that its sun protection products are just as effective and good for your skin? You likely do now, because this was one of our bestselling water-resistant sunscreens. This has a subtle tint that gives skin a radiant glow without leaving behind a thick white cast or oily residue. It’s a surprisingly lightweight mineral formula that is water-resistant for up to 40 minutes and can also help to defend skin against environmental stressors.

Amazon

Vacation Classic Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 travel size three-pack

I can’t get enough of the entire Vacation lineup, and it was the clear frontrunner for readers looking for water-resistant sunscreen. It has a really clean, lightweight finish that disappears into the skin leaving behind a delicious coconut-forward summery scent. It is easy to rub into skin and is water-resistant, making it ideal for all manner of summertime activities. It’s also packed with skin-friendly ingredients like vitamin E, niacinamide, banana extract, aloe vera and coconut oil that help to soothe, soften and nourish skin. You can’t go wrong with a three-pack of travel sized options from Amazon, just pop one in each of your bags and in your bathroom cabinet for easy access. Or you can purchase them individually and full-size at Ulta.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Sunscreens At Amazon

Amazon

Sun Bum Original SPF 50 sunscreen

You can’t go wrong with sunscreen classic, Sun Bum — no wonder it’s a HuffPost readers’ top pick at Amazon. This moisturizing sunscreen lotion is clearly a crowd favorite. It’s oxybenzone-, octinoxate- and oil-free, plus water-resistant.

Sephora

Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen spf 40

This cult-favorite and HP reader-favorite sunscreen from Supergoop has a clear, lightweight and unscented formula so you don’t have to deal with an irritating white cast. It’s also oil-free and great for anyone who might have sensitive or acne-prone skin.

Amazon

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen

Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer sunscreen is lightweight and fast-absorbing, making it especially ideal for use on hot summer days. It even provides up to 80 minutes of water resistance — no wonder it’s a popular reader go-to.

HuffPost Readers’ Favorite Sunscreens For Mature Skin

Dermstore

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light sunscreen SPF 50

According to Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist at MCDS Dermatology, “This ultralight sunscreen fluid is mineral-based, containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, but also offers a fast-absorbing, lightweight texture. It is easy to apply and also offers antioxidant protection.” It’s also one of HuffPost readers’ favorite options for mature skin.

Amazon

CeraVe hydrating mineral sunscreen SPF 50

Garshick noted that “[t]his hydrating formulation contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to provide broad-spectrum coverage. In addition, it contains hyaluronic acid to help provide moisture, ceramides to help support the skin’s natural barrier as well as niacinamide which can soothe the skin. This mineral sunscreen is fragrance- and paraben-free making it a good option even for those with dry or sensitive skin.” Readers agree!

Walmart

La Roche Posay Anthelios XL 50 Anti-Shine Dry Touch gel-cream SPF 50+

Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama personally uses this sunscreen. He says it “applies easily and doesn’t leave the skin feeling extra shiny or sticky. It also doesn’t leave a white cast on my skin.” It absorbs quickly and has soothing antioxidant ingredients that HuffPost readers can’t get enough of.

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