The best way to protect your skin from the dangerous effects of UV radiation is to make sun protection part of your daily routine.
Remember that certain oral and topical medicines, including antibiotics, birth control, and benzoyl peroxide products can increase the sensitivity of your skin and eyes to UV rays. Check the label on your medicines and discuss the risks with your doctor.
Cosmetics that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) also may increase sun sensitivity and susceptibility to sunburn. Look for FDA’s recommended sun alert statement on products that contain AHAs.
The sections below outline the basic methods of sun protection and offer several tips for integrating sun protection into your daily routine.
- Avoid overexposure to UV rays from both natural and artificial sources.
- Plan your outdoor activities to avoid the sun's strongest rays. As a rule, seek shade and remember that the sun’s UV rays are the strongest between 10am and 4pm. You can also use the “shadow rule”; the sun’s UV rays are strongest when the shadow you cast on the ground is shorter than you are.
- Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect damaging UV rays and increase your chance of sunburn and other damage to the skin and eyes.
- Wear protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats, and long pants and long-sleeved shirts made of tightly-woven fabric to reduce sun exposure.
- Wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV ray protection (look for models that advertise both UVB and UVA protection).
- Use a broad-spectrum (protecting from both UVA and UVB) sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater to protect uncovered skin. For best results, apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 1-1/2 to 2 hours even on cloudy days and after swimming or sweating. Both selection of the sunscreen and re-applications are important.
- Carefully examine all of your skin once a month. Early detection of melanoma can save your life. A new or changing skin lesion should be evaluated by a dermatologist.
- See a dermatologist if you notice an unusual mole, a scaly patch, or a sore with local persistent bleeding or that does not heal. This may be a pre-cancer or a skin cancer. If you develop severe itching or rashes in the sun, this may be an allergic reaction.
A wide-brimmed hat that shields your face and shoulders will provide the most protection. Optimally, the brim will be at least 4 inches wide and made of tightly-woven, opaque fibers. Loosely woven straw hats provide very little sun protection. As a rule of thumb, do not wear a hat if you can see light shining through the fabric.
Clothing can also help protect you from UV rays. Tightly-woven, light-colored, lightweight fabrics will provide you with the most comfort and protection.
Sun-protective clothing and swimsuits are now available in stores. However, these products are not regulated by FDA.
Choose sunglasses that are labeled with a UVA/UVB rating of 100% to provide the most UV protection.
Do not mistake dark-tinted sunglasses as having more UV protection. The darkness of the lens does not indicate its ability to shield your eyes from UV rays. Many sunglasses with light-colored tints, such as green, amber, red, and gray offer the same UV protection as very dark lenses.
Children should also wear sunglasses that indicate the UV protection level. Toy sunglasses may not have any UV protection, so be sure to look for the UV protection label.
Large, wraparound-style frames may provide more efficient UV protection because they cover the entire eye-socket. This is especially important when doing activities around or on water because much of the UV comes from light reflected off the water’s surface.
Sunglasses are the most effective when worn with a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.
Sunscreens provide a chemical barrier that absorbs or reflects UV radiation and prevent the passage of UV to the skin. They include chemical ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc and are available in the form of lotions, sprays, gels, wax sticks, and creams.
How to Choose:
Sunscreens are made in a wide range of SPFs, or sun protection factors. As a general rule, the higher the SPF number, the more protection against sunburn and other skin damage the sunscreen provides. To get the most protection out of sunscreen, choose one with an SPF of at least 15. If your skin is fair, types I to III, you may want a higher minimum SPF of 30 to 50.
When shopping for sunscreen, chose one that is labeled as broad-spectrum because it will help protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Check the sunscreen label for broad-spectrum ingredients such as those listed in the table below.
Examples of Broad-Spectrum Ingredients
Some sunscreens are labeled as being water-resistant. These products stay on skin longer even if they get wet from pool or ocean water, or sweat. But water-resistant does not mean water-proof. Water resistant sunscreen still needs to be reapplied, so check the label for reapplication times.
How to Use:
As a rule, apply an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside so the product has time to soak into your skin and provide the maximum benefit. You should apply sunscreen everyday, even if it is cloudy.
Apply a liberal amount of sunscreen to your entire face (avoiding the eyes and mouth) and body, taking extra care to cover frequently forgotten spots:
- Back of neck
- Tops of feet
- Along the hairline
- Areas of the head exposed by balding or thinning hair
An average-size adult or child needs at least one ounce of sunscreen, about the amount it takes to fill a shot glass—to evenly cover the body from head to toe.
Ask a doctor before applying sunscreen to children under 6 months of age.
Check the label and reapply sunscreen according to the instructions. Sunscreens typically need to be reapplied at least every two hours.
See Sunscreen for more information on sun protection.