Woman putting on sunscreen

How to Protect Yourself from Damaging UV Rays

What Is Sun Safety?

Sun safety represents a series of actions a person can take to protect their skin from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun.

UV rays refers to ultraviolet radiation. There are three types of ultraviolet radiation. According to the American Cancer Society:

  • “UVA rays have the least energy among UV rays. These rays can cause skin cells to age and can cause some indirect damage to cells’ DNA. UVA rays are mainly linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, but they are also thought to play a role in some skin cancers.
  • UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays. They can damage the DNA in skin cells directly and are the main rays that cause sunburns. They are also thought to cause most skin cancers.
  • UVC rays have more energy than the other types of UV rays. Fortunately, because of this, they react with ozone high in our atmosphere and don’t reach the ground, so they are not normally a risk factor for skin cancer.”

SPF Ratings

When reading about sun safety the acronym SPF is often used. SPF stands for sun protection factor and refers typically to how long a sunscreen protects the skin from UVB rays.

Dictionary.com defines sunscreen as: “a substance formulated to prevent sunburn, skin cancers, and other conditions caused by excessive exposure to the sun, usually by absorbing and reflecting ultraviolet radiation.”

There are several ratings for SPF sunscreens. According to Dr. James M. Spencer, a Florida dermatologist, "SPF is not a consumer-friendly number. It is logical for someone to think that an SPF of 30 is twice as good as an SPF of 15 and so on. But that is not how it works."

Spencer explains it this way. SPF 15 products block about 94% of UVB rays, SPF 30 block 97% UVB rays, and SPF 45 block about 98% UVB rays.

Why Practice Sun Safety

The skin is the largest organ of the body. Its excess exposure to the sun can lead to skin aging or skin cancer. Skin cancer can often be treated if diagnosed early enough but, depending on its type and severity, can lead to death. Taking care of one’s skin by following some basic sun safety tips can go a long way to keep skin looking young and staying healthy.

Sun Safety Tips for All Ages

Here are some basic tips that anyone can use to help protect their skin from harmful sun exposure:


Since the sun’s ultraviolet rays are what cause skin aging and cancer, keeping a barrier between the sun and the skin is a great start. This could be as easy as staying in the shade of a tree, carrying an umbrella or being covered by a porch roof while outside.


Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, skirts and other fabric coverings can provide protection from UV rays. The tighter the weave of the fabric, the better the protection. This is because tight weaves let in the least amount of light. Dry clothes, as well, can provide better protection from the sun than wet ones. The same goes for darker color clothes. They typically provide better sun protection than lighter colors or white. There are clothes that are certified under international standards for UV protection. So, always check the labels on clothes to see if this protection is offered.

It isn’t always realistic to wear long shirts, pants or dark clothes while in the sun. When this is the case, try to wear a T-shirt or other kind of fabric cover for the body. Typically, T-shirts have an SPF rating of lower than 15. This means that beyond clothing, other kinds of skin protection may be needed for the best sun safety. Tightly-woven hats and sunglasses (with UVA and UVB protection) can also help protect covered skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Glasses with UVA and UVB protection can protect the eyes and eyelids from the sun’s rays.


Apart from shade and clothing, applying sunscreen to the skin before going into the sun is a great way to get overall sun protection. One thing to look for in a sunscreen product is its safety rating. Lots of potentially harmful chemicals are put into all sorts of topical products; sunscreens are no exception. A great resource to use to find information about sunscreens — regarding their chemical compositions and safety ratings — is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep product database.

Of course, before using any sunscreen, check the expiration date of the product. Sunscreen does degrade over time, so make sure the expiration date on the product packaging/bottle hasn’t passed before using it.

Other Sun Safety Tips

Lip balms with sunscreen are a way to protect your lips from sun exposure. Limiting the time you spend in the sun is also a good idea. The longer a person is in the sun, the more UV rays they are exposed to and the greater the risk of skin damage from the sun. Keep in mind, sun exposure happens at any time of year. Winter can be particularly tricky; sunlight reflects off snow and can easily cause skin burning.

Also, UV rays can permeate clouds and are stronger at higher elevations. The time of day, year and geographical location can all affect how much sun is safe to be exposed to. Therefore, always check local recommendations for sun safety. This is especially important when traveling to a new place or when closer to the equator, as the equator has more direct sunlight than places further from it.

Effective sun safety is multi-faceted. It involves clothing, exposure time to the sun, proximity to the equator, time of day, all times of the year, cloudy or overcast skies, elevation, sunscreen, and one’s own knowledge of local sun conditions. Stay prepared. Share what you know about sun safety with others, so that fewer people suffer from the short or long-term consequences of unhealthy sun exposure.

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