Sun Protection 101

It’s easy to forget about sun protection in all the frenzy of preparing for an outdoor adventure. No matter what kinds of activities you enjoy, it’s important to stay protected from the sun to prevent painful sunburns and to reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Whether you’re headed out on the boat or hitting the trails, here are some practical, easy tips for protecting yourself and your family from unhealthy sun exposure.


There are hundreds of sunscreens on the market. It can be hard to know which one to choose!

How does sunscreen work?

Whether you choose a spray, gel, or lotion, sunscreen is made up of organic and inorganic chemicals that block or absorb the sun’s rays before they reach our skin.

Inorganic chemicals like zinc oxide or titanium oxide reflect UV rays. Organic chemical molecules absorb more UV radiation through their chemical bonds. As the bonds absorb UV radiation, the sunscreen breaks down and releases heat. This chemical reaction protects your skin from the harmful rays, and that is why it is important to reapply sunscreen frequently!

How to use sunscreen

Most doctors and organizations recommend choosing a sunscreen with an SPF between 15 and 50. More importantly, you should reapply sunscreen about every two hours regardless of its strength.  Set the alarm on your phone or watch to help you remember to reapply throughout the day.

How much sunscreen should you use? Most companies recommend using at least an ounce (one shot glass) for the best protection. It’s nearly impossible to measure spray-on sunscreens, and it is easy to miss a spot, but the protection is about the same as lotions and gels.

And don’t forget about your lips! Sunburned lips can be very painful. SPF lip balm is a great

What about SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and the number tells us how well the sunscreen protects against the most damaging UVB radiation that is the primary cause of sunburn and several types of skin cancer.

UVA radiation causes wrinkling, age spots, and can lead to other types of skin cancer. The SPF number does not tell reveal how well the sunscreen protects against UVA radiation. Sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum” blocks both UVA and UVB radiation. Inorganic chemicals usually deflect both UVB and UVA radiation.

No sunscreen can block all UV rays. The SPF number helps you estimate how long it will take for your skin to begin to burn. So, SPF 15 sunscreen will keep you from getting red for about 15 times longer than usual—if you usually start to burn after 10 minutes in the sun, SPF 15 will protect you from burning for about 150 minutes.

Sunscreen and babies

Babies’ skin is very sensitive and can absorb chemicals easily. Avoid using sunscreen on children younger than 6 months old unless absolutely necessary. If you must use sunscreen on young babies, choose one that has zinc oxide as the only active ingredient.

Opt for long sleeve clothing, hats, and shade as the primary means of protection against the sun for very young children. The best times of day to be outside with babies is before 10 am and after 4pm when the sun is less intense.

Sunscreen and cloudy days

Even in winter and on cloudy days, up to 80% of UV rays make it to the ground and reflect off water, sand, snow, and concrete. People might even be more susceptible to exposure to UV rays on colder days because they tend to stay outside longer.

Vitamin D and sunscreen

The truth is you only need 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure to your arms, legs, abdomen, and back two or three times a week for your body to produce all the vitamin D it needs. After that, your body cannot store vitamin D, and the sun exposure is potentially damaging your skin.

Sunscreen works by blocking UVB light. This can potentially lower your vitamin D levels, but most people don’t use enough sunscreen to block all UVB light or don’t apply sunscreen frequently enough to have a significant effect on vitamin D levels, so you really don’t need to worry about using sunscreen being detrimental to your vitamin D levels. There are many healthy foods you can add to your diet to boost your vitamin D levels just as effectively.

Sun Protective Clothing

Protective clothing is the best way to protect your skin from harmful UV rays, but not all clothing is equally protective.

Protective fabrics

Some fabrics absorb some UV radiation, and some reflect the radiation. Fabric is made from woven or knitted fibers. The tighter the knit or weave, the more protective the material is.

Synthetic fibers like Lycra, nylon, and polyester offer more protection than bleached cotton, rayon, and other semi-synthetic materials. And sheer fabrics provide little if any protection.

Dark-colored materials usually absorb more UV rays than lighter colors. Vivid colors offer the most sun protection. A bright yellow shirt is generally more protective than a white shirt made of the same fabric.

For the best protection against UV rays, choose light-colored synthetic fabrics.

UPF Rating

Clothing with a UPF rating was tested in a laboratory to determine just how effectively it protects your skin from UV rays. A shirt with 50 UPF allows only 1/50 of the UV radiation through the fabric. By comparison, a white cotton shirt offers just 5 UPF protection.

High UPF shirts usually have long sleeves and a double layer of fabric on the shoulders where you are most susceptible to UV rays.

Fit and function matters

When you use clothing to protect your skin from UV rays, purchase clothing that suits your needs. For example, a long sleeve, tightly woven linen shirt is an excellent choice for the beach.

Make sure you purchase the right size clothing that covers as much skin as possible. Overstretching the fabric lowers the UPF rating and allows more UV rays through. Clothing with a UPF of at least 30 offers the best protection.

Remember, UV light bounces off water, snow, glass, and other surfaces easily, increasing the intensity of exposure.

Sun protective clothing

Here is a list of clothing items that offer good sun protection:

  • A wide-brimmed hat that protects your face, neck, and ears
  • Long sleeve shirts with a UPF rating
  • Long pants or shorts with a UPF rating
  • Rash guards and swim shirts for adventures by the water
  • Polarized Sunglasses protect your eyes from sun damage
  • Sun Gaiter / Buff protect your ears, neck, head, and face
  • Sun sleeves offer long sleeve protection without having to wear a long sleeve shirt

It’s essential to keep your skin healthy by protecting it from harmful UV radiation. For the best protection, use a combination of sunscreen and protective clothing every time you head outside. Whenever possible, choose to stay in the shade.

Do you have a favorite sunscreen or item of sun protective clothing? Share in the comments!

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