Updated: April 2020
Originally Published: July 2017
Whether you’re going on walks and hikes, at the pool or beach, on a river trip, spending time in the mountains, or at the amusement park, you’re risking skin damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful rays can penetrate your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And UV damage may lead to skin cancer.
Experts at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) recommend avoiding the sun as much as possible, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. If you can’t do that, the next best thing is to cover your skin with clothing. But what type of clothing is best? Many outdoor retailers offer expensive ultraviolet protection factor (UPF)-rated clothing. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, those items are effective. However, any clothing with these traits will offer protection.
More layers of clothing does not necessarily mean more protection. The most important protective factor of fabrics is weave density—the tighter the knit or weave, the smaller the holes and the fewer UV rays can get through.
Dark or bright colors
Darker colors absorb more UV than lighter colors like whites and pastels. This means the UV rays are less likely to reach your skin. But bright colors such as red can also absorb UV rays. The more vivid the color, the greater the protection—a bright yellow shirt is more protective than a pale one.
Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are more protective than bleached cottons or semi-synthetic fabric such as rayon.
More stretch means UV rays will more easily penetrate the fabric. Sporting clothes that do not hug the skin may increase UPF.
Wet fabrics often take on a lower UPF.
Old, frayed, or faded garments are less effective in protecting the skin against harmful rays.
The more fabric the better
Long-sleeved shirts and pants offer the most coverage.
Along with clothing, follow these tips to protect yourself from the sun:
Cover Your Face
HCI recommends wearing hats with a brim 3 inches wide or more. A sun hat with a brim all the way around will protect your face as well as the back of your neck.
Protect Your Eyes
Eyes are also highly sensitive to the sun’s rays. Sunglasses offer protection, but not all are created equal. Here’s what to look for.
- 99-100 percent UV protection
- Only sunglasses labeled as having 99-100 percent UV light protection should be worn to ensure proper defense. Don’t assume you’ll get full UV protection just from darker lenses, polarized lenses, or a mirror coating, which are all designed to let in less light. You still need to look for the 99-100 percent UV protection label.
- Wraparound style: Wraparound glasses are designed to protect your eyes from harmful rays. They are shaped to keep light from shining around the frames and into your eyes.
Seek shade when you are outside and remember the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
Use the Right Type of Sunscreen
Any areas of skin not protected by clothing should be covered in sunscreen. Not all sunscreens are created equal, either. Look for these features:
- SPF 30 or higher
- Broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
- Contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both
- Lotion rather than spray (lotion provides better coverage)
- Water resistant
Use enough sunscreen to generously coat all skin not covered by clothing. Huntsman Cancer Institute recommends most adults use 1 ounce to cover the whole body. Always follow the directions and adjust the amount of sunscreen depending on body size. Make sure to reapply every two hours or after swimming, drying off with a towel, or sweating.
Avoid Tanning Beds and Sunlamps
UV light from tanning beds can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. People who tan have a higher risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan or sunburn is your body’s response to damage from UV rays.
Learn more about protecting your skin.