Health Library

Protecting Your Skin From the Sun

Topic Overview

Protecting your skin

Most skin cancer can be prevented. Use the following tips to protect your skin from the sun. You may decrease your chances of developing skin cancer and help prevent wrinkles.

Although people with darker skin don't sunburn as easily, they can still get skin cancer. So it's important to use sun protection, no matter what your skin color is.

Avoid sun exposure

The best way to prevent a sunburn is to avoid sun exposure.

Stay out of the midday sun (from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon), which is the strongest sunlight. Find shade if you need to be outdoors. You can also calculate how much ultraviolet (UV) exposure you are getting by using the shadow rule: A shadow that is longer than you are means UV exposure is low; a shadow that is shorter than you are means the UV exposure is high.

Other ways to protect yourself from the sun include wearing protective clothing, such as:

  • Hats with wide 4 in. (10 cm) brims that cover your neck, ears, eyes, and scalp.
  • Sunglasses with UV ray protection, to prevent eye damage.
  • Loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Clothing made with sun protective fabric. These clothes have a special label that tells you how effective they are in protecting your skin from ultraviolet rays.

Preventing sun exposure in children

You should start protecting your child from the sun when he or she is a baby. Because children spend a lot of time outdoors playing, they get most of their lifetime sun exposure in their first 18 years.

  • It's safest to keep babies younger than 6 months out of the sun.
  • Teach children the ABCs of how to protect their skin from getting sunburned.
    • A = Away. Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day (from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon). Seek shade. Be sure to use sun protection when you are near water, snow, or sand, because the sun's rays reflect off of these.
    • B = Block. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to protect babies' and children's very sensitive skin.
    • C = Cover up. Wear clothing that covers the skin, hats with wide brims, and sunglasses with UV protection. Even children 1 year old should wear sunglasses with UV protection.
    • S = Speak out. Teach others to protect their skin from sun damage. Tanning beds can cause the same skin damage as sunburns and suntanning.

Sunscreen protection

If you can't avoid being in the sun, use a sunscreen to help protect your skin while you are in the sun.

Be sure to read the information on the sunscreen label about its SPF value and how much protection it gives your skin. Follow the directions on the label for applying the sunscreen so it is most effective in protecting your skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

Choosing a sunscreen

  • Sunscreens come in lotions, gels, creams, ointments, and sprays. Use a sunscreen that:
    • Has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher.
    • Says "broad-spectrum" that protects the skin from ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays.
  • Use lip balm or cream that has SPF of 30 or higher to protect your lips from getting sunburned or developing cold sores.
  • Use a higher SPF at when you are near water, at higher elevations or in tropical climates. Sunscreen effectiveness is affected by the wind, humidity, and altitude.

Some sunscreens say they are water-resistant or waterproof and can protect for about 40 minutes in the sun if a person is doing a water activity.

Applying a sunscreen

  • Apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going in the sun.
  • Apply sunscreen to all the skin that will be exposed to the sun, including the nose, ears, neck, scalp, and lips. Sunscreen needs to be applied evenly over the skin and in the amount recommended on the label. Most sunscreens are not completely effective because they are not applied correctly. It usually takes about 1 fl oz (30 mL) to cover an adult's body.
  • Apply sunscreen every 2 to 3 hours while in the sun and after swimming or sweating a lot. The SPF value decreases if a person sweats heavily or is in water, because water on the skin reduces the amount of protection the sunscreen provides. Wearing a T-shirt while swimming does not protect your skin unless sunscreen has also been applied to your skin under the T-shirt.

Other sunscreen tips

The following tips about sunscreen will help you use it more effectively:

  • Older adults should always use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to protect their very sensitive skin.
  • If you have sensitive skin that burns easily, use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
  • If you have dry skin, use a cream or lotion sunscreen.
  • If you have oily skin or you work in dusty or sandy conditions, use a gel, which dries on the skin without leaving a film.
  • If your skin is sensitive to skin products or you have had a skin reaction (allergic reaction) to a sunscreen, use a sunscreen that is free of chemicals, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), preservatives, perfumes, and alcohol.
  • If you are going to have high exposure to the sun, consider using a physical sunscreen (sunblock), such as zinc oxide, which will stop all sunlight from reaching the skin.
  • If you need to use sunscreen and insect repellent with DEET, do not use a product that combines the two. You can apply sunscreen first and then apply the insect repellent with DEET, but the sunscreen needs to be reapplied every 2 hours.

Do not use tanning booths to get a tan. Artificial tanning devices can cause skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer.

For information on sun exposure and vitamin D, see Getting Enough Calcium and Vitamin D.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Decision Points

Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.

You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:

Interactive Tools

Get started learning more about your health!

Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.

Symptom Checker

Feeling under the weather?

Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.

Symptom Checker