How to Protect Yourself from the Sun

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Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin color. Avoiding overexposure to the sun is the most preventable way to reduce your risk for all skin cancers, including melanoma, the deadliest form. Seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and applying sunscreen are important ways to protect your skin from exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.


Sunlight consists of three types of harmful UV rays: ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet C (UVC).

  • UVB rays are the sun’s burning rays and are the primary cause of
  • UVA rays reach deeper into the skin and lead to signs of premature skin aging such as wrinkling and age spots. UVA rays also travels through window glass, leading to exposure even when you are indoors or driving in a
  • UVC rays are most dangerous, but are blocked by the Earth’s ozone layer. There is no “safe” UV ray, and there is no such thing as a “safe”

In fact, the United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Seek shade whenever possible


You can have fun in the sun, protect your skin and decrease your risk of skin cancer.

  • Seek shade. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, seek
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, where
  • Most clothing absorbs or reflects some UV rays. However, light-colored and loose-knit fabrics as well as wet clothes that cling to your skin do not offer much sun protection. In general, the tighter the weave of the fabric and the darker the fabric color, the more UV protection clothing
  • Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to all exposed skin. “Broad-spectrum” provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or
  • Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun,

which can increase your chances of sunburn.

  • Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product or spray, but continue to use sunscreen with


Sunscreens protect your skin by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun’s UV rays.


The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:

  • Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
  • Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher
  • Water resistance


Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays.

SPFs higher than 30 block slightly more of the sun’s rays. No sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays.

It is important to note that even if you are wearing a high-SPF sunscreen, it should be reapplied approximately every two hours when outdoors and always after swimming or sweating. Do not use high SPF sunscreens as a way to stay in the sun longer.


The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again.

The form of sunscreen you choose is a matter of personal choice, and may vary depending on the area of the body to be protected and the type of skin you have. Available sunscreen options include gels, lotions, creams, ointments, wax sticks, and sprays. Keep in mind the following tips:

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the
  • Gels are good for oily skin and hairy areas such as the scalp or male
  • Sticks can be helpful for targeted protection around the

Sprays are sometimes preferred by parents since they are easy to apply to children. Men may find it convenient to spray on a balding scalp. The challenge in using spray sunscreens is that it is difficult to know if you have used enough spray sunscreen to cover all sun-exposed areas of the body. This can result in inadequate coverage and a sunburn.

Never spray sunscreen around or near your face or mouth. Instead, spray an adequate amount of sunscreen into your hands and then apply the sunscreen to the face. When applying spray sunscreens on children, be aware of the direction of the wind to avoid children breathing in the sunscreen.

Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating


Follow these tips to ensure you are using enough sunscreen:

  • Use enough sunscreen to generously coat all skin that will be not be covered by clothing. Ask yourself, “Will my face, ears, arms, or hands be covered by clothing?” If not, apply sunscreen. Most people only apply 25-50% of the recommended amount of
  • Dermatologists consider one ounce of a cream or lotion – enough to fill a shot glass – as the amount needed to

cover the exposed areas of the body. Adjust the amount of sunscreen applied depending on your body size.

  • Apply the sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes BEFORE going
  • Don’t forget to protect your lips. Apply a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or


Ideally, babies under 6 months should not spend time directly in the sun. Since babies’ skin is much more sensitive than adults, sunscreens should be avoided if possible. Importantly, babies aren’t able regulate their temperature well so they can easily become overheated. The best sun protection for babies younger than 6 months is to keep them in the shade as much as possible and dress them in long sleeves, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.

For toddlers and infants 6 months or older, sunscreen can be applied to exposed skin not covered by clothing. Look for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They are most appropriate for the thinner skin of toddlers and infants 6 months or older. These ingredients do not penetrate the skin and are less likely to cause irritation.


Yes, sunscreen is safe to use. Scientific studies actually support using sunscreen. Talk with your dermatologist if you are concerned about specific sunscreen ingredients.

A board-certified dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating the medical, surgical, and cosmetic conditions of the skin, hair and nails. To learn more or to find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit or call toll free (888) 462-DERM (3376).

All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology.
Copyright © by the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology Association.

Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides

American Academy of Dermatology

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