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Cancer Risk and Prevention

How to Protect Your Skin from UV Rays

It’s not possible to avoid sunlight completely, but there are ways to help ensure you’re not getting too much sun when you are outdoors:

  • Simply staying in the shade, especially during midday hours, is one of the best ways to limit your UV exposure from sunlight.
  • Protect your skin with clothing that covers your arms and legs.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head, face, and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses that block UV rays to protect your eyes and the skin around them.
  • Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to help protect skin that isn’t covered with clothing.

It’s also important to avoid tanning beds, booths, sunlamps, and other artificial sources of UV radiation, and to use protective clothing, UV shields, and filters when exposed to UV in the workplace.

Seek shade

The best way to limit your exposure to UV light is to avoid being outdoors in direct sunlight too long. When outdoors, especially when the sun is strongest, try to stay under trees, umbrellas, and canopies, or use a portable sunshade. Even when you’re in the shade, UV rays can still reach you by reflecting off other surfaces, so it’s still good idea to also to protect your skin in other ways, such as wears protective clothing and using sunscreen.

Protect your skin with clothing

When you are out in the sun, wear clothing to cover your skin. Clothes provide different levels of UV protection. Be aware that covering up doesn’t block out all UV rays. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too.

  • Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts cover the most skin and are the most protective.
  • Dark colors generally provide more protection than light colors.
  • A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing.
  • Dry fabric is generally more protective than wet fabric.

What about clothing with UV protection factor (UPF)?

You can buy clothing that’s lightweight, comfortable, and protects against UV rays even when wet. The fabric for these items tends to be more tightly woven, and some have special coatings to help absorb UV rays.

  • Sun-protective clothes may have a label listing the UV protection factor (UPF) value (the level of protection the garment provides from the sun’s UV rays, on a scale from 15 to 50+).
  • The higher the UPF, the higher the protection from UV rays.
  • There are laundry detergents on the market that can increase the UPF value of clothes you already own. They add tiny crystals to clothes when washed which adds a layer of UV protection without changing the color or texture. This can be useful, but it’s not exactly clear how much added protection is provided from these detergents.

Use sunscreen

Sunscreen helps protect your skin by filtering UV rays, but it doesn’t block them completely. Apply sunscreen generously, making sure to cover all parts of your body that aren’t covered by clothing, including your face, ears, neck, arms, the tops of your feet, and your scalp and hairline. Protect your lips by using lip balm with sunscreen.

Sunscreen comes in many forms, including lotions, creams, and sprays. If you have sensitive skin, choose a sunscreen that doesn't irritate or cause a reaction. Always read the label carefully.

Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, and more frequently if you are sweating or swimming. Remember that no sunscreen can protect you completely. Even if you use sunscreen with a high SPF, it doesn't mean you can stay in the sun longer. To learn about how to choose and apply sunscreen, see How to Use Sunscreen.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat

A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is ideal for sun protection. It protects areas that are often exposed to intense sun, such as the ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. A dark, non-reflective underside to the brim can also help lower the amount of UV rays reaching the face from reflective surfaces such as water.

A shade cap looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back. This is also a good choice, and will provide more protection for the neck. These are often sold in sporting goods and outdoor supply stores. If you don’t have a shade cap (or another good hat) available, you can make one by wearing a large handkerchief or bandana under a baseball cap. People who need to wear hard hats for work can use this technique, too, or find a hard hat with a built-in sun shade.

Keep in mind a baseball cap protects the front and top of the head but does not protect the neck or the ears, where skin cancers commonly develop. Straw hats are not as protective as hats made of tightly woven fabric since they can let more UV rays through. 

Wear sunglasses that block UV rays

UV-blocking sunglasses are important for protecting the delicate skin around the eyes, as well as the eyes themselves. Research has shown that spending long hours in the sun without protecting your eyes increases your chance of developing certain eye diseases, including possibly eye cancer.

The ideal sunglasses should block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Before you buy, check the label to make sure they do. If there is no label, don’t assume the sunglasses provide any UV protection.

  • Labels that say “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “Meets ANSI UV Requirements” mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays.
  • Labels that say “cosmetic” block about 70% of UV rays.
  • Darker glasses are not necessarily better because UV protection comes from an invisible chemical that is in or applied to the lenses. The protection does not come from the color or darkness of the lenses. Look for an ANSI label.

Large-framed and wraparound sunglasses are more likely to protect your eyes from light coming in from different angles. Be sure to protect the eyes of children with smaller versions of real, protective adult sunglasses – not toy sunglasses.

Some brands of eyeglasses and contact lenses offer protection against UV rays. Don’t assume this is true for lenses you wear unless it’s clearly stated on the product label or you confirm this with your eye care professional. Of course, glasses come in many shapes and sizes, and smaller lenses will cover and protect smaller areas. Contact lenses don’t cover the whole eye and surrounding areas, so they are not sufficient eye protection when used alone.

Avoid indoor tanning devices

Tanning lamps give off UVA and usually UVB rays as well. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause long-term skin damage, and can contribute to skin cancer. Tanning bed use has been linked with an increased risk of melanoma, especially if it’s started before age 30. Tanning beds, booths, and sun lamps are not recommended.

Small UV lamps are also used in nail salons (or at home) to dry some types of nail polish, such as gel or shellac polish. These UV lamps give off UVA rays. The amount given off is much lower than from tanning beds, and the risk of skin cancer from these lamps is thought to be low. To be safe, some expert groups recommend applying sunscreen to the hands before using one of these lamps.

Protect children from the sun

Children tend to spend more time outdoors than adults, and they also tend to get sunburned more easily. Regardless of skin color or tone, children need special attention in the sun. Since they are young and focused on play time, they may not be aware of the dangers of the sun or how long they have been in the sun.

Parents and caregivers should protect children from excess sun exposure by using the steps above: seek shade, use protective clothing, apply and reapply sunscreen, and put on a hat and sunglasses. It’s important to protect children as fully as is reasonably possible.

Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun using hats, stroller covers, umbrellas, and protective clothing. Some experts don’t recommend using sunscreen on babies. Check with your infant’s doctor about using sunscreen and which type and brand might be best to use.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Academy of Dermatology. Sun protection. Accessed at on June 26, 2024. 

American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. 2023. Accessed at on June 26, 2024.

Skin Cancer Foundation. Sun protection. Accessed at on June 26, 2024.

US Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun. 2023. Accessed at on June 26, 2024.

Last Revised: June 26, 2024

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