How to Stay Safe in the Sun

Prevent Skin Cancer by Following These Simple Tips

Excessive exposure to the sun and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) radiation is clearly associated with a higher risk of multiple forms of skin cancer. Since skin cancer is diagnosed in over one million Americans every year (and rising), experts from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the American Academy of Dermatology, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and many other organizations are unanimous in strongly recommending that you should reduce your time in the sun.

That sounds simple, but how much sun is too much? Who is most at risk? What are the most effective ways to protect yourself? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about sun safety.

Woman wearing sun hat on beach
 Tom Merton / Getty Images

Risk Factors

People of all races and skin colors can develop skin cancer, but some are more susceptible than others. If you have one or more of the following risk factors, you should be especially vigilant about reducing your UV exposure:

  • Fair skin
  • Blue, green, or hazel eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Freckles
  • Moles (especially 50 or more)
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer

When and Where the Sun Is Most Dangerous

UV radiation from the sun is especially damaging under certain conditions, including the following:

  • from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • from mid-Spring through mid-Fall
  • at latitudes nearer the equator (for example, Florida)
  • at latitudes near the pole where the ozone layer has weakened (South America, Australia)
  • at higher altitudes
  • when there is no thick cloud cover (and clouds only block 20 percent of UV rays)
  • near water, snow, or other highly reflective surfaces

Sun damage accumulates over time, so if you find yourself in these conditions often, consistent protection is a must. Remember that besides skin cancer, the sun can also cause cataracts and other eye problems, a weakened immune system, unsightly skin spots, wrinkles, and "leathery" skin.

The Most Effective Way to Protect Yourself

If you answered "sunscreen," you're wrong. The most effective way actually is to simply stay out of the summer sun in the middle of the day. If that's not possible, wearing dark, tightly woven clothing and a wide-brimmed hat also works. Only then comes sunscreen, which isn't a panacea and shouldn't be exclusively relied upon. Here are some more tips to protect yourself:

  • Wear sunglasses that include a warranty stating they provide 99-100 percent UVA and UVB (broad-spectrum) protection.
  • Apply one ounce (a palm full) of sunscreen to all exposed skin 15 minutes before venturing outdoors. The sunscreen container should specify a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 15 or above and should state that it provides broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection. Lotion- or cream-based sunscreens tend to adhere to the skin longer, thus providing better protection.
  • PABA-free sunscreens are recommended for persons with sensitive skin. Susceptible individuals may also want to avoid oxybenzone and dioxybenzone. Products that contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide are considered broad spectrum sunscreens and are thus offer protection against UVB and most UVA rays, as well as help reduce the development of wrinkles and skin aging.
  • Depending on your activity (swimming, sweating), sunscreen should be re-applied at least every two hours.
  • The SPF number on the sunscreen is connected to the amount of solar exposure. Overall, if you add intensity and time, this resulting amount of exposure is cut into a fraction by the SPF number. Keep in mind that SPF 30 isn't twice as powerful as SPF 15. SPF 15 filters about 93% of UVB while SPF 30 filters 97% of UVB.
  • Avoid tanning salons, beds, and sunlamps.

Do Children Need Extra Protection?

Yes. Up to 50 percent of an individual's lifetime contact with sunshine occurs before adulthood. Studies also show that the more incidents of sunburn kids have, the higher likelihood that they will develop skin cancer decades later. So it is especially critical to protect them from the sun. Here are a few tips:

  • Babies six months of age or younger should be kept completely out of the direct sun at all times. In addition, sunscreen shouldn't be applied to babies this age.
  • For children over six months, apply sunscreen every time they go outside.
  • Children's swimsuits made from sun-protective fabric and designed to cover the child from the neck to the knees are available and quite popular.

Are Tanning Salons Healthier Than the Sun?

No. Tanning lamps give out UVA and frequently UVB rays as well and so can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer. Remember, tanning is a sign of skin damage and does nothing to protect the skin from further injury. Experts recommend that you prioritize your health over vanity and avoid tanning salons altogether.

The sun causes an estimated 90 percent of skin cancer cases. Reducing your exposure to UV radiation now is a simple, easy, and effective way to prevent a potentially devastating cancer later.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • "Facts about sunscreens." American Academy of Dermatology. 
  • "SunWise Program." Environmental Protection Agency. 
  • "How Do I Protect Myself from UV Rays?" American Cancer Society.
  • "Skin Cancer Prevention Program." California Department of Public Health.