Protection from the Harmful Effects of the Sun

The best way to reduce the risk for skin cancer and prevent premature aging, skin damage, and sunburn is to protect the skin from the sun's harmful UV rays. The following guidelines can help limit sun exposure:

Seek Shade

Limit outdoor activities to shady areas during the summer months, especially between the peak-sun hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Visit the beach during the early morning and late afternoon hours.

Teach young children that when their shadow is shorter than they are, they should play in the shade. If your yard is sunny, take your children to a shady park or insist that they play outside before and after peak-sun hours.

Make sure that your child's school, summer camp, and daycare center use effective sun protection techniques (e.g., hats, sunscreen).

Cover Up

When shade is not available, the next best option is to cover up as much skin as possible. For example:

  • Wear sunglasses and a wide brim hat. Choose sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection from UVA and UVB.
  • Cover as much skin as possible. Not all fabrics are equally protective against UV rays. A good way to test clothing for UV protection is to hold it up to the light—the less light that comes through the fabric, the more protective it is.
  • Use an umbrella or sunshade.

Use Sunscreen

Woman Sunscreen - Masterfile Image align=right

Although sunscreen can help prevent sunburn and most experts recommend using it in the prevention of skin cancer, questions remain about whether sunscreen effectively reduces the risk for skin cancer.

Further research also is necessary regarding the safety of chemicals that are used in some types of sunscreen. With the exception of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the active ingredients of many sunscreens absorb into the skin and enter the bloodstream. Questions still exist about whether these ingredients have harmful effects.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a common ingredient in sunscreen (oxybenzone) recently has been linked to a number of conditions, including allergies and cell damage. Oxybenzone, which increases absorption of other chemicals, also may cause low birth weight in newborn girls of mothers who are exposed during pregnancy. For women who are pregnant, staying out of the sun and covering the skin are the safest ways to avoid exposure to UV rays and the potentially harmful effects of sunscreen ingredients.

The following recommendations can be used to help increase the effectiveness of sunscreen:

  • Do not use sunscreen on babies under 6 months of age.
  • Test any new sunscreen ahead of time. Sunscreens with PABA can cause skin irritation in some people. The day before using a new sunscreen, apply a small amount to the wrist and monitor the area for redness or skin irritation over a 24-hour period. If you or your child has highly sensitive skin, use a sunscreen that only contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient(s). These sunscreens do not penetrate the skin and are less likely to cause skin irritation.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) 15 or 30 that helps block both UVA and UVB rays. In a person who normally begins to burn in 10 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen, an SPF 15 will provide about 150 minutes of protection (10 minutes x 15 = 150 minutes). Sunscreens with an SPF above 30 may give a false sense of security. Ask a physician to recommend an appropriate sunscreen.
  • Apply sunscreen 20–30 minutes before going out into the sun. Be sure to apply sunscreen to the ears, tops of feet, neck, top of head (hair part), and nose.
  • Cover all exposed skin with sunscreen and use a generous amount rather than a thin layer.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, immediately after leaving the water, and after physical activity.
  • Choose a lip balm that contains sunscreen in the form of zinc or titanium oxides.
  • Remember that sunscreen does expire. Check the packaging before using to make sure that it is not past the expiration date.
Girl Sunscreen - Masterfile Image align=left

In June 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took additional steps to help prevent sun damage caused by exposure to UV rays. These measures include:

  • final regulations to set standards for testing sunscreens and require accurate labeling
  • regulation to limit maximum sun protective factor (SPF) values on sunscreen to "SPF 50 "
  • request for safety and effectiveness information for certain dosing forms (e.g., sprays) of sunscreen products
  • guidance for sunscreen manufacturers on labeling and testing products

These new standards will help determine which sunscreen products can be labeled "Broad Spectrum," which protect against UVB rays and UVA rays and reduce the risk for sunburn, skin cancer and early aging of the skin. They will ensure that products not labeled "Broad Spectrum" (e.g., sunscreen with an SPF of 2 to 14), which can reduce the risk of sunburn, but do not offer protection against other skin damage, are labeled with a skin cancer/skin aging warning.

Manufacturers will be prohibited from claiming that a sunscreen product is "waterproof" or "sweatproof," of that it offers "instant protection." Also, sunscreen labels will no longer be allowed to claim that the product is a "sunblock." Water resistance claims on sunscreen labels must provide information about how long (40 minutes or 80 minutes) the SPF of the product is effective while swimming or sweating, based on tests.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 28 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 06 Dec 2012