Some people think about sun protection only when they spend a day at the lake, beach, or pool. But sun exposure adds up day after day, and it happens every time you are in the sun. "Slip! Slop! Slap!… and Wrap" is a catch phrase that can help you remember the 4 key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:
- Slip on a shirt.
- Slop on sunscreen.
- Slap on a hat.
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them.
When you are out in the sun, wear clothing to protect as much skin as possible. Clothes provide different levels of UV protection, depending on many factors. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts cover the most skin and are the most protective. Dark colors generally provide more protection than light colors. A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing. Dry fabric is generally more protective than wet fabric.
If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too. Be aware that covering up doesn't block out all UV rays.
Some companies now make clothing that is lightweight, comfortable, and protects against UV exposure even when wet. It tends to be more tightly woven, and some have special coatings to help absorb UV rays. These sun-protective clothes may have a label listing the UV protection factor (UPF) value – the level of protection the garment provides from the sun's UV rays (on a scale from 15 to 50+). The higher the UPF, the higher the protection from UV rays.
Children's swimsuits made from sun-protective fabric and designed to cover the child from the neck to the knees are popular in Australia. They are now available in the United States.
Newer products, which are used in the washing machine like laundry detergents, can increase the UPF value of clothes you already own. They add a layer of UV protection to your clothes without changing the color or texture.
A sunscreen is a product that you apply to your skin for protection against the sun's UV rays. But it's important to know that sunscreen does not provide total protection against all UV rays. Even with proper sunscreen use, some rays get through, which is why using other forms of sun protection is also important.
Sunscreens are available in many forms – lotions, creams, ointments, gels, wipes, and lip balms, to name a few.
Some cosmetics, such as lipsticks and foundations, also are considered sunscreen products if they contain sunscreen. Some makeup contains sunscreen, but only the label can tell you. Makeup, including lipstick, without sunscreen does not provide sun protection. Check the labels to find out.
Read the labels. When choosing a sunscreen product, be sure to read the label before you buy. Many groups, including the American Academy of Dermatology, recommend products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. The SPF number represents the level of protection against UVB rays provided by the sunscreen – a higher number means more protection.
When using an SPF 30 sunscreen and applying it thickly, you get the equivalent of 1 minute of UVB rays for each 30 minutes you spend in the sun. So, 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending 2 minutes totally unprotected. People often do not apply a thick enough layer of sunscreen, so the actual protection they get is less.
Sunscreens labeled with SPFs as high as 100+ are now available. Higher numbers do mean more protection, but many people mistakenly think that a sunscreen with an SPF 45 rating would give 3 times as much protection as one with an SPF of 15. This is not true. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. The higher you go, the smaller the difference becomes. No sunscreen protects you completely. Regardless of the SPF, sunscreen should be reapplied often for maximal protection.
The SPF number indicates protection against UVB rays only. Sunscreen products labeled "broad-spectrum" provide some protection against both UVA and UVB rays, but at this time there is no standard system for measuring protection from UVA rays. Products that contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide can provide some protection from UVB and most UVA rays.
Check the expiration date on the sunscreen container to be sure it is still effective. Most sunscreen products are effective for at least 2 to 3 years, but after a long time in storage you may need to shake the bottle to remix the sunscreen ingredients.
Some sunscreen products can irritate skin. Many products claim to be hypoallergenic or dermatologist tested, but the only way to know for sure if a product will irritate your skin is to try it. One common recommendation is to apply a small amount to the soft skin on the inside of your elbow every day for 3 days. If your skin does not turn red or become itchy, the product is probably OK for you.
Be sure to apply the sunscreen properly. Always follow the label directions. Most recommend applying sunscreen generously. When putting it on, pay close attention to your face, ears, hands, arms, and any other areas not covered by clothing. If you're going to wear insect repellent or makeup, put on the sunscreen first.
Be generous. Ideally, about 1 ounce of sunscreen (about a palmful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck, and face of the average adult. For best results, most sunscreens must be reapplied at least every 2 hours and even more often if you are swimming or sweating. Products labeled "waterproof" may provide protection for at least 80 minutes even when you are swimming or sweating. Products that are "water resistant" may protect for only 40 minutes.
Remember that sunscreen usually rubs off when you towel yourself dry, so you will need to put more on.
Sunless tanning products, such as bronzers and extenders (described in the section called, “What about tanning pills and other tanning products?”), give skin a tan or golden color. But unlike sunscreens, these products provide very little protection from UV damage.
Wear a Hat
A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is ideal because it protects areas such as the ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp that are often exposed to intense sun. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back) also is good, and will provide more protection for the neck. These are often sold in sports and outdoor supply stores.
A baseball cap can protect the front and top of the head but not the neck or the ears, where skin cancers commonly develop. Straw hats are not as protective as hats made of tightly woven fabric.
Wear Sunglasses that Block UV Rays
UV-blocking sunglasses are important for protecting the delicate skin around the eyes, as well as the eyes themselves. Research has shown that long hours in the sun without protecting your eyes increase your chances of developing eye disease.
The ideal sunglasses do not have to be expensive, but they should block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB radiation. Before you buy, check the label to make sure they do. Labels that say "UV absorption up to 400 nm" or "Meets ANSI UV Requirements" mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays. Those labeled "cosmetic" block about 70% of UV rays. If there is no label, don't assume the sunglasses provide any UV protection.
Darker glasses are not necessarily better because UV protection comes from an invisible chemical applied to the lenses, not from the color or darkness of the lenses. Look for an ANSI label.
Large-framed and wraparound sunglasses are more likely to protect your eyes from light coming in from different angles. Children need smaller versions of real, protective adult sunglasses – not toy sunglasses.
Ideally, all types of eyewear, including prescription glasses and contact lenses, should absorb the entire UV spectrum. Some contact lenses are now made to block most UV rays. But because they don't cover the whole eye and surrounding areas, they are not sufficient eye protection when used alone.
Limit Direct Sun Exposure During Midday
Another way to limit exposure to UV light is to avoid being outdoors in sunlight too long. UV rays are strongest when the sun is high in the sky, usually between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. If you are unsure about the sun's intensity, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun's rays are the strongest, and protection from the sun is most important.
UV rays reach the ground throughout the year, even on hazy days, but the strength of UV rays can be different based on the time of year and other factors. The UV rays become more intense in the spring, even before temperatures get warmer. People in some areas may get sunburned when the weather is still cool because they may not think about protecting themselves if it's not hot out. Be especially careful on the beach or in areas with snow because sand, water, and snow can reflect sunlight, increasing the amount of UV radiation you receive. UV rays can also reach below the water's surface, so you can still get a burn even if you're in the water and feeling cool.
Some UV rays can also pass through windows. Typical car, home, and office windows block most of the UVB rays but a smaller portion of UVA rays, so even if you don't feel you're getting burned your skin may still get some damage. Tinted windows help block more UVA rays, but this depends on the type of tinting. UV radiation that comes through windows probably doesn't pose a great risk to most people unless they spend long periods of time close to a window that receives direct sunlight.
If you plan to be outdoors, you may want to check the UV Index for your area first. The UV Index usually can be found in local newspaper, TV, radio, and online forecasts. It is also available on the EPA's Web site at www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html.
Avoid Tanning Beds and Sunlamps
Many people believe the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. Tanning lamps give out UVA and usually UVB rays as well. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause long-term skin damage, and can contribute to skin cancer. Most skin doctors and health organizations recommend not using tanning beds and sun lamps.
Protect Children from the Sun
Children need special attention, since they tend to spend more time outdoors, can burn more easily, and may not be aware of the dangers. Parents and other caregivers should protect children from excess sun exposure by using the steps described above. Older children need to be cautioned about sun exposure as they become more independent. It is important, particularly in parts of the world where it is sunnier, to cover your children as fully as is reasonable. You should develop the habit of using sunscreen on exposed skin for yourself and your children whenever you go outdoors and may be exposed to large amounts of sunlight. If you or your child burns easily, be extra careful to cover up, limit exposure, and apply sunscreen.
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun using hats and protective clothing. Sunscreen may be used on small areas of exposed skin only if adequate clothing and shade are not available.
A Word About Sun Exposure and Vitamin D
Doctors are learning that vitamin D has many health benefits. It may even help to lower the risk for some cancers. Vitamin D is made naturally by your skin when you are in the sun. How much vitamin D you make depends on many things, including how old you are, how dark your skin is, and how intensely the sun shines where you live.
At this time, doctors aren't sure what the optimal level of vitamin D is. A lot of research is being done in this area. Whenever possible, it is better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamin supplements rather than from sun exposure because dietary sources and vitamin supplements do not increase risk for skin cancer, and are typically more reliable ways to get the amount you need.
Information Courtesy of American Cancer Society