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Sunscreens and Sun Protection

Sun protection at any age is important to prevent the short-term as well as long-term, damaging effects of sunlight. Sunscreen plays a major part and should be used in conjunction with other sun-safety steps for optimal sun protection.

A single overexposure to sunlight can result in painful, red, sunburned skin. A bad burn when young can have serious consequences, such as skin cancer, later in life. Long-term overexposure can cause skin cancer, wrinkles, freckles, age spots, dilated blood vessels, and changes in the texture of the skin that make skin look older.

Sun Protection

Sun protection helps prevent skin damage and wrinkles, and reduces the risk of developing skin cancer. Newer broad-spectrum sunscreens contain products to block both UVA and UVB rays. To be effective, sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that you seek shade when possible. Avoid sunbathing, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing.

A typical white tee shirt has an SPF of 3. Colorless dyes that increase the SPF of fabrics to an SPF of 30 are available as laundry products. If you must be in the sun, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, even on cloudy days.

Sunscreens, however, are not perfect. Because some ultraviolet light may still get through sunscreens, they should not be used as a way of prolonging sun exposure. Learn more about sunscreens below and on our Sunscreen FAQs page.

Sunscreens: How They Work

Sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin. They are available in many forms, including ointments, creams, gels, lotions, sprays, and wax sticks. All are labeled with SPF numbers. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from sunburn caused mostly by UVB rays, but this does not increase the length of time for sun exposure.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. They do a better job of protecting skin from other effects of the sun, including photo damage, photodermatitis, and rashes from sun exposure.

Types of Sunscreens

Sunscreens that block UVB rays are composed of some or all of the following chemicals: padimate O, homosalate, octyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenone, octyl salicylate, phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid, and octocrylene.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens add oxybenzone or avobenzone (Parsol 1789) to block UVA rays. Mexoryl is a chemical that blocks UVA; its broad-spectrum characteristics allow sunscreens to be made with very high SPF factors.

Physical sunscreens/blocks or chemical-free sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which reflect UVA and UVB and are especially useful for people allergic to chemical sunscreens.

Proper Use of Sunscreen

Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before going outdoors. Even water-resistant sunscreens should be reapplied often, about every two hours or after swimming, drying off, or perspiring.

Sunscreen should be applied generously and evenly so as not to miss any areas of sun-exposed skin. It should be kept out of the eyes, and UV light-blocking sunglasses should be worn.


Self-tanning lotions and sprays are a safe alternative to tanning. They contain dihydroxyacetone, which interacts with proteins in the skin to produce an orange/tan color that does not wash off. However, the color of self-tanners only has an SPF of 4. This is not enough protection; therefore, sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 must be used and reapplied every two hours.

Tips for Sun Protection

Sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma.[1],[2] You can have fun in the sun and decrease your risk of skin cancer. Here’s how to stay safe in the sun:

  • Generously apply a water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 that provides broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays to all exposed skin. Reapply approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. Look for the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITION™ on products that meet these criteria.
  • Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, where possible.
  • Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
  • Protect children from sun exposure by playing in the shade, using protective clothing, and applying sunscreen.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow, and sand because they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.
  • Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.[3]
  • Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look like you’ve been in the sun, consider using a sunless self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
  • Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.

[1] American Cancer Society. 2016 Cancer Facts and Figures.
[2} Robinson, JK. Sun Exposure, Sun Protection and Vitamin D. JAMA 2005; 294:1541-1543.
[3] Hemminki K, Dong C. Subsequent cancers after in situ and invasive squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. Arch Dermatol 2000; 136:647-651.


Additional Information About Sun Protection

The greatest sun damage occurs between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun’s rays are strongest. Even on cloudy days, when it does not feel hot, or when under trees, sunscreen and other sun-protective measures should be used because sunburn and sun damage to the skin can occur.

Beach umbrellas and other kinds of shade are a good idea, but they do not provide full protection. UV rays can still bounce off sand, water, and porch decks; sunscreen usage is a must. Remember, UV rays are invisible.

Most clothing absorbs or reflects UV rays, but lighter-colored and loose-knit fabrics, as well as wet clothes that cling to your skin, do not offer much protection. The tighter the weave, the more sun protection the clothing offers.

Artificial UV light from tanning beds causes the same types of problems, photodamage, and cancers that natural sunlight can cause. The use of indoor tanning for non-medical purposes should be avoided.

Sun protection also is important in the winter. Snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays, causing sunburn and damage to uncovered skin. Winter sports in the mountains increase the risk of sun damage because there is less atmosphere to block the sun’s rays.



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