The summer sun brings warmth, joy, and the desire by many for a beachy looking glow. Decades of increased awareness about the dangers of sun exposure shifted people’s behaviors toward slathering on high SPF and getting golden via makeup or self-tanner. But now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the opposite direction among young people.

While other generations are sitting under the beach umbrella, Gen Z is soaking up the sun, often with a hidden cost – sunburn. A 2024 American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults reveals a startling trend: more than half (58%) of Gen Z adults ages 18 to 26 reported getting sunburns in 2023, a significantly higher rate than the national average (36%). Even more alarming, over half (52%) of Gen Z adults are unaware of the serious risks of sunburns. This lack of awareness has led to risky habits, with nearly 37% of Gen Z admitting to using sunscreen only when pressured by others.

The short-term discomfort of sunburns can lead to serious and potentially deadly long-term consequences. Dr. Elizabeth Hale, MD, a board-certified New York City dermatologist, Senior Vice President of the Skin Cancer Foundation, and Chief Medical Advisor to the Vacation sunscreen brand, highlights a sobering statistic from the Skin Cancer Foundation: “Just one blistering sunburn as a child or adolescent more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma [the deadliest skin cancer] later in life,” she said. This underscores the crucial role of consistent sun protection, especially from a young age.

Unfortunately, this message isn’t registering among Gen Z. In the AAD survey, 28% of Gen Z respondents said getting a tan was more important to them than preventing skin cancer, and a whopping 70% reported tanned or darker skin in 2023. Experts hope that targeted education and marketing campaigns can steer Gen Z towards safer choices by focusing on messages that empathize with their desire to look tan but stress the importance of long-term health.

This approach has proved effective with previous generations. According to the AAD’s survey — which tested participants’ understanding of sun protection, common myths, and the risks of sun exposure — over half of Americans score an A or B grade for their sun protection knowledge. But with Gen Z, those scores drop dramatically, with one third (32%) of Gen Z adults receiving a “failing” grade D or F. This knowledge gap translates into missed opportunities to prevent premature skin aging, sunspots, and skin cancer.

Why is Gen Z’s perception of sun damage so skewed? One culprit, experts surmise, is social media — which Gen Z tends to favor as their news source — and the prevalence of misinformation and myths circulating online. In April, reality star Kristin Cavallari (who has over 11 million followers across her social media) said on her “Let’s Be Honest” podcast, “I don’t wear sunscreen…talk to me about the health benefits of the sun and maybe why we don’t need sunscreen.”

Comments like these by major influencers are compounded by an abundance of user-generated content that seems to prioritize aesthetics over long-term health, as images of “perfectly” tanned bodies flood social platforms, distorting the perception of beauty. Antiquated myths such as “a base tan protects you” and “sunscreen is bad for your skin” are suddenly back in rotation among Gen Z, further deterring proper sun protection behaviors. Two common misconceptions Dr. Hale frequently hears are the belief that darker skin tones don’t need sunscreen, and that SPF is only necessary on sunny days. “I can’t begin to count the number of times patients have come in with a sunburn telling me, ‘I thought it was cloudy!’”, she said. “Skin cancer affects everyone with skin, no matter what your skin tone.”

With the wide range of sophisticated (i.e. no stinky smell or Oompa Loompa orange cast) self-tanner products on the market that deliver realistic color, Dr. Hale encourages Gen Z, and everyone else, to give a bottle tan a try. “Whether you prefer a spray, lotion, gel, or drops, I can guarantee there is a self-tanning product that will give you a healthy glow, deliver incredible skin care benefits, and leave your skin looking even better than if you laid in the sun,” she said. In response to some young people’s belief that sunscreen is bad for their skin, Dr. Hale said, “If sunscreens feel greasy, try an oil-free or non-comedogenic formula.” She recommends Vacation Classic Lotion SPF 50 ($18), noting that it doesn’t leave a white cast, goes on smooth, and isn’t greasy. (Dr. Hale is Chief Medical Advisor to Vacation.)

In fact, the newest innovations in sunscreen offer multi-tasking formulas that look and feel invisible on the skin and prioritize natural, healthy ingredients. Cult favorite skin care brand Eighth Day, which was founded by Dr. Antony Nakhla, a leading reconstructive skin cancer surgeon, just launched The Rejuvenating Moisturizing Primer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($140) for all skin types and tones. The tinted, sheer mineral sunscreen-primer hybrid is non-chemical and contains non-nanoparticle zinc plus natural pigments to neutralize the white cast associated with zinc formulas.

Seaweed Bath Co., a fast-growing, natural personal care brand, just came out with seven new 100% mineral sunscreens packed with good-for-skin ingredients. The Invisible Mineral SPF 50 ($30), a weightless gel zinc-mineral formula, doubles as a makeup primer and contains niacinamide, skin-brightening rainbow seaweed, and bisabolol (derived from German chamomile) to calm skin. Packaged in post-consumer recycled plastic and sugarcane paperboard, the sunscreen is also free of titanium dioxide.

For a sun-kissed look, bronzing body lotions deliver instant, wash-off color with plenty of skin-nourishing ingredients. Skin care and body care brand Hi Beautiful You offers Be You Body | Body Perfecting Bronzer ($58) a DHA-free, wash-off vegan formula that works with the skin’s natural pH to match all skin tones. The body tint contains hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and shea butter.

But no matter now enticing the ads for sunscreen and bronzing products, educating Gen Z on the importance of sun safety presents new obstacles that didn’t exist decades ago when the dangers of UV exposure first became known. Now, experts and the industry are up against a sea of misinformation being flooded into their social feeds at a time when distrust among young people in mainstream news and authority figures is at an all-time high. The challenge, it seems, will be getting them to see the light.