This post may contain affiliate links. See here for full details
Are you pumped for summer?! If you live up north like we do, chances are you’re super hyped about the warm weather upon us. But after a long winter indoors, you’re also probably revisiting concerns about safety outside in the sun.
If you google sun safety you’ll find a lot of articles on individual topics: sunscreens, UV rays, sunglasses, etc. And it can be quite the information overload if you look into all of it! So to make it easier I’ve compiled all the important information in one place to give you the ultimate guide to sun protection!
UV Rays: The Facts
The scientist in me would feel like I let you down if I didn’t explain the main reason we are concerned with sun safety at all! So….
What are UV rays?
Ultraviolet (“UV”) radiation is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. What is the electromagnetic spectrum, you ask? It’s a visual description of all the electromagnetic waves at different energies. Here is a super simplified version of it:
Here’s what you need to know in a nutshell: smaller wavelength means higher energy waves, and higher energy waves do more damage to our cells. Simple, right?
Basically, anything to the left of the visible part of the spectrum (the only part of the spectrum we can see with our eyes) can cause damage to the cells in our body. The sun emits rays in the UV range, so we need to be careful when we go out. Too much exposure to UV rays can lead to issues such as skin cancer, premature aging, and immunity problems. Yuck!
UVA versus UVB Rays
UVA and UVB rays are simply subgroups of UV rays. UVA rays get most of the hype, but UVB rays are still part of the UV spectrum and reach our bodies so we need to protect ourselves from them too (more on that below)!
UVC and the Ozone layer
People don’t discuss UVC rays much in connection to sun protection. Why? While UVC rays are still part of the UV spectrum and can cause cellular damage, most UVC rays are absorbed by the ozone layer and never reach us. Thanks ozone!
UV Index and Air Quality Index
The UV Index (“UVI”) predicts how strong (and therefore dangerous) UV rays from the sun will be at a particular time. The numbers range from 1 to over 11, with lower numbers predicting less possible damage due to UV radiation from the sun.
The Air Quality Index (“AQI”) does not predict anything related to sun damage specifically, but instead is a measure of pollutants in the air. This is of particular concern for people who like to go outside but have respiratory problems such as asthma. AQI numbers range from 0-300, with lower numbers predicting better air quality.
For more information on UV radiation and the AQI, check out this fact sheet on UV radiation and this summary by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can also check out a more thorough discussion of the effects of UVA and UVB rays at this page by the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Now that we know why we should minimize our exposure to UV radiation, the question remains on how we can minimize that exposure. Most people know that using sunscreen can help protect us, but with the extraordinary number of options out there, how do we know which ones to choose?
SPF: Sun Protection Factor
Many people believe that the greater the SPF, the better. Sorry, but that is incorrect!
I think that most people assume that there’s a linear relationship between the numbers. For example, since 30 is twice 15, then sunscreen with SPF 30 must be twice as good as sunscreen with SPF 15. As logical as that sounds, it doesn’t quite work that way. In fact, SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UV rays and SPF 30 sunscreens block out only about 4% more. Sunscreens beyond SPF 50 aren’t even regulated in the US, so if you buy sunscreen labeled SPF 80 you’re probably just paying extra money for a label.
On the other side of the spectrum (pun intended!), sunscreens that have too low of an SPF won’t provide enough protection. Because of this, the FDA suggests using sunscreens with at least SPF 15.
At the end of the day, sunscreens with an SPF between 15 and 30 are adequate for most people with proper use. Those who are really sensitive to the sun may want to go up to SPF 50, but keep in mind that SPF numbers beyond 50 are not regulated.
What Does “Broad Spectrum” mean?
Different sunscreen agents prevent different UV waves from causing damage to our skin. Some of these agents protect us from a small section of the UV range, such as just UVA rays. Others protect us from a wider range of UV rays, such as UVA and UVB. Sunscreen agents that protect against a wide range of UV rays are considered “broad spectrum.” It is generally a wise idea to choose broad spectrum sunscreens because all UV rays can cause cellular damage if they reach our skin.
Chemical versus physical UV blocking agents
Here’s a question for you: why is regular ol’ lotion different from sunscreen? Hint: the answer “well sunscreen protects you from the sun….duh” won’t suffice 😉
The main difference between regular lotion and sunscreen is the presence of specific chemicals that prevent UV radiation from penetrating your skin. There are two ways to achieve this, chemically or physically:
Chemical sunscreens are normally organic compounds (compounds containing carbon) that protect people from sun damage by absorbing UV rays before they hit your skin. Unfortunately, many chemical sunscreen agents have pitfalls, such as:
Photoreactivity: the energy from the UV rays causes them to decompose or otherwise react.
Toxicity: many chemical sunscreen agents disrupt the hormonal system.
Skin reactions: chemical sunscreen agents can cause skin irritations, especially in people with sensitive skin.
Time: sunscreens containing chemical agents should be applied at least 30 minutes before going outside so they can be properly absorbed by the skin.
If any of these issues concern you then it is best to stay away from chemical sunscreen agents as a general rule. Here is a list of chemical agents you may find in sunscreens:
- Mexoryl SX
On the other hand, physical sunscreen agents are inorganic compounds that normally protect people from sun damage by reflecting UV rays. Pretty cool, right?
Like everything in life, physical sunscreen agents have downfalls as well:
Thick: physical sunscreen agents tend to make the sunscreen thick and more challenging to apply to skin. They also have a reputation for making the person wearing it look pale or “ghostly.”
Washes off easily: physical sunscreen agents wash off more easily than chemical sunscreen agents due to time in the water or sweat.
Personally, not looking the most attractive doesn’t bother me when I’m out compared to the risks of UV exposure. But it is something to consider if you like to look nice when you go out.
Currently two main agents are used as physical sunscreen agents:
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide
Of the two, zinc oxide has broader UV protection and has fewer toxicity concerns.
Sunscreens that use physical sunscreen agents are also known as “mineral sunscreens” or “sunblock.” However, before purchasing any product make sure you read the label and are comfortable with its ingredients.
For a more detailed discussion of sunscreen ingredients, head over to the Environmental Working Group’s discussion on sunscreen chemicals and the Skin Cancer Foundation’s overview of sunscreens (including busting common myths!).
Vitamin A provides many health benefits for our eyes, immune systems, bones and more. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing…
Many cosmetics companies add vitamin A to their products because its antioxidant effects supposedly slows skin aging. However, recent research shows that certain forms of vitamin A can speed the development of skin tumors if it is applied in sunlight. In addition, in the presence of sunlight vitamin A may form free radicals that damage DNA. Although research is still ongoing about the effects of vitamin A in the presence of sunlight, vitamin A is most definitely not required to make a sunscreen effective. So to be safe…get your vitamin A from your carrots, not your sunscreen. Mmmkay?
For more on the effects of vitamin A in your sunscreen, check out the EWG’s article on the concerns of vitamin A in cosmetics.
Perhaps more important than the sunscreen you choose is how you actually use it! Here are a few tips on proper sunscreen use:
- Apply 30 minutes before going outside
- Reapply at least every 2 hours
- Choose lotions over sprays
- Limit the time outside, especially between 10am-2pm (when the sun is strongest)
Take a look at FDA’s tips on sun safety for more information.
Good sunscreens to choose from
After all that, what are some good sunscreens to choose from? We have used Thinksport mineral sunscreen (zinc oxide) and had great luck with it, and used the baby version for our kiddo (Little Grasshopper has never been sun burned!). These particular lotions are very thick though so keep that in mind. Here are some other mineral sunscreens that you may want to consider as well:
- Badger Kids Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Blue Lizard Australian Baby Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Nurture My Body Baby Organic Sunscreen, SPF 32
- Sunology Natural Kids Sunscreen, SPF 50
- TruKid Sunny Days Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30+
All of the sunscreens listed here are approved by the EWG and have at least a 4-star rating on Amazon. A complete list of the sunscreens approved by the EWG can be found on their website .
Your eyes also need protection from the sun. Apparently sunglasses aren’t just for looking cool!
Be warned though that cheap sunglasses may actually do more harm than good. The thinking is that your pupils dilate when you put sunglasses on because they sense less light. However, since cheap sunglasses don’t protect against UV rays more UV light can actually enter the eye, which leads to more damage. So what should you look for?
Complete UV protection: If the sunglasses don’t say that they offer complete UV protection in some way then don’t buy them!
Large lenses: The larger the lenses the more protection they offer. You may even want to consider wraparound lenses.
Things that don’t matter
Price: Basic polycarbonate lenses offer good UV protection. So you don’t have to spend a fortune! Just make sure they say that they offer complete UV protection.
Color: Darker lenses don’t necessarily equate to better UV protection. As long as the glasses say that they offer proper protection feel free to get whatever color you like!
Polarization: polarized lenses prevent glare but don’t protect from UV rays. Consider polarized lenses if you like to drive with your sunglasses on.
UV protective contact lenses: These will help, but UV protective sunglasses are still important.
As it turns out, clothing is one of the best ways to protect yourself from UV radiation! Here’s a few tips on choosing clothing for sun protection:
- Pick dark clothes: dark clothing helps prevent UV damage better than lighter colored clothes
- Sport wide-brimmed hats: Go for the 360 degree style for full coverage!
- Go with long-sleeves: I know, I know…no one wants to wear long sleeves in summer. But hey, I’m just doing my job here 😉
- Choose tightly woven clothes: skip that fabulous mesh look crochet cover up you made while you’re in the sun.
- Look for UPF clothing: many brands now make clothing that rates for UV protection in a similar way that “SPF” rates how well a sunscreen protects against UV rays (“UPF” stands for “ultraviolet protection factor”).
For more information check out the Skin Cancer Foundation’s article on clothing.
Sun safety is always important but certain situations require even greater caution. Here are a few examples:
Certain Medications: Some medications (such as certain antibiotics and antidepressants) can increase sensitivity to sunlight. Talk to your doctor about whether anything you’re taking (including supplements!) may affect your sun sensitivity.
Babies under 6 mos old: Infants are more sensitive to the sun than adults. It is best to keep young babies out of the sun altogether if possible.
So what happens if you do everything you can but still get sun burned? Here are a few of the recommendations by American Academy of Dermatology:
Don’t pop blisters! They’re there to help you heal
Use lotions with aloe (or soy): And skip the green jelly stuff that has barely any (or even none) aloe at all. In fact, aloe leaves are easy to find in stores these days. Cut one up yourself and get the most of aloe’s healing power!
Drink extra water: in fact, do this even if you don’t get burned.
Take cool baths: this will help relieve the pain.
Whew, I think I covered everything…what a lot of information! Don’t forget to pin or share this post if you want to refer to it in the future or if you know someone who will find it useful!