The 4th H

Summer's Almost Over, but Sun Safety Isn't: Tips for Protecting Your Skin from Sun Damage

Authors: Angie Frost, Kay Nannet, & Arin Weidner
Published: September 4, 2017
a young boy and girl play with buckets on the beach

Sunburns not only hurt, they can also ruin a family outing, sporting event, or outdoor fun. Many people have experienced the disappointment of having to stay inside while waiting for their sunburns to heal — and that doesn't account for the long-term damage unprotected skin can experience.

This article will help to shed some light on sun safety and give you tips that will keep you and your family safe while enjoying the outdoors.

Many people have questions about sun safety, and the most logical place to start is "What is a sunburn?"

A sunburn is when your skin gets too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, which causes a superficial inflammation of the skin. We cannot feel UV radiation like we can feel the heat coming from a stove or an iron (burns from these heat sources are called "thermal burns"). Because we can't feel UV radiation, we are more likely to stay outdoors and only pay attention to our skin once the UV damage has already occurred. In order to decrease your risk of becoming sunburned, it is important to learn different types of sun protection.

Here are our answers to five of the most common questions about sun safety.

  • How much sunscreen should I wear, and does it expire?
  • Does wearing sunscreen also block the about of vitamin D I can get from the sun?
  • Are there ways other than sunscreen to protect my skin from the sun?
  • Can using a tanning bed give me a "base tan" to prevent sunburn?
  • Who is at more risk for getting sunburn and skin cancer? 

How much should I wear, and does it expire?

There are two common rules for applying sunscreen.

The first is the teaspoon rule — a teaspoon for your face, a teaspoon for your arms, a teaspoon for your legs, etc. It can seem a bit overwhelming to have to add up and measure all of the teaspoons necessary to cover your body.

So, that brings us to our second rule: Whatever your body size, if you fill your hand full of sunscreen you should have enough to cover your entire body. This rule works the same for children; use the size of their hand to ensure enough coverage of sunscreen for their body.

Spray-on sunscreens are popular, but it can be difficult to determine if you have full coverage using these products. With spray-on sunscreen, you know you are getting enough coverage when you skin looks like it is glistening wet. Instead of spraying your face directly, first spray the sunscreen into your hand and then rub the sunscreen on your face.

Sunscreens do expire. They should have an expiration date, which is typically about three years. It is good to check all sunscreen labels before you purchase some. If you bought sunscreen this year this year and haven’t used it all, then you should be able to keep it and use it next season — just check the expiration date. Sunscreen products also have degrees of SPF protection. You want to look for labels that say that sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays — this is called "broad spectrum" protection.

It's important to remember that sunscreen is water resistant, not waterproof. One application provides 40-80 minutes of sun protection, so, it is important to be aware of when it is time to reapply.

The most commonly overlooked areas when applying sunscreen: back of the neck, ears, behind your arms, and tops of your feet. 

Does wearing sunscreen also block the about of vitamin D I can get from the sun?

Vitamin D is important because it is related to bone health. Vitamin D production is a complex process. Currently, there is no evidence from any rigorous scientific study that indicates that sunscreen significantly suppresses vitamin D production. The skin's production of vitamin D is so efficient that even casual exposure to the sun on your face and arms is typically enough for most people. However, other factors (such as age, body, location, time of day, and health status) affect vitamin D production. It's safe to say that using sunscreen won't affect vitamin D production in most people. If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, your physician can order a blood test. Vitamin D also comes from the foods you eat or from supplements. Always check with your doctor before altering your diet or adding vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D can be toxic when mega dosing with a vitamin D supplement, although you cannot get this same affect with sun exposure. Your body regulates the conversation of vitamin D by means of the sun to prevent toxic effects. 

Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a straw hat are pictured

Are there ways other than sunscreen to protect my skin from the sun?

You can also protect yourself from the sun by wearing sun-protective clothing. Such clothing uses the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating. The average UPF rating on sun-protective clothing is UPF 50. For children and adults (with special attention to infants and toddlers), sun-protective swim clothing is also an excellent way to avoid sun damage.

While the protection that sunscreen applications fade over 40-80 minutes, sun-protective clothing provides constant coverage when outside. So, if you wear a sun-protective shirt and hat (with at least a 3-inch brim), you don’t need to worry about reapplying.

Another way to protect yourself from sun exposure is an oral supplement that contains polypodium leucotomos (PLE). PLE is an extract and is sold over-the-counter. The most common brand is Heliocare and PLE helps decrease cell damage and inflammation from ultraviolet light. If you do get a sunburn, PLE can help repair damaged cells. But in any case, PLE is only a supplement to your sun care regimen. It should never be the only protection you use against sun damage. 

Did you know there are photosensitizing foods?

If you consume or squeeze limes, and get the juice on your face or hands, you may get a sunburn and not understand why. Limes increase your skin’s photosensitivity. This means your skin's sensitivity to UV light increases. Celery, dill, lemons, grapefruit, and figs also have photosensitizing properties (but to a lesser degree than limes).​

Can using a tanning bed give me a “base tan” to prevent sunburn?

The American Academy of Dermatology and the Dermatology Nurses' Association both strongly discourage tanning bed use for all minors. In Indiana, children under 16 not only require parental consent to use a tanning bed, but the parent must be present when their child is using the tanning bed. Tanning beds can be addictive; people experience feelings of relaxation due to the release of endorphins when exposed to the tanning bed lights. But tanning beds are considered carcinogenic. The cumulative use of ultraviolet light significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer. And it is a myth that getting a "base tan" from a tanning bed will decrease your risk of sunburn later. The base tan you get from a tanning bed is equivalent to apply sunscreen with SPF 4. SPF 4 will not give you very much protection against a sunburn for most people who have lighter skin tones. 

There are safe alternatives to getting the sun-kissed glow. We would like to promote that we all just love the skin we are in. However, there are many products on the market that have been determined to be safe for use. There are different make-up products that contain bronzers that would be for daily use and you can wash off. Other products include self-tanning lotions and sprays that you apply that temporarily tint your skin and will wear off over a few days 

Who is at more risk for getting sunburn and skin cancer?

When it comes to skin cancer, there are several risk factors, including:

  • ​Your family history of skin cancer
  • Your immune status (including if you've received organ transplants or are taking immune suppressing medications)
  • Whether you have red hair or fair skin
  • Whether you are taking certain photosensitizing medications (prescription and over-the-counter)
  • Your age (risk increases with age)
  • Whether you are prone to sunburn of have had a blistering sunburn
  • Whether you have more than 18 moles 

It's a good idea for all of us to do a self-exam of our skin every month, and if something shows up that is not normal, then we know we can go to our healthcare provider. For instance, if you've had a bump for six weeks that you thought was a pimple, a lesion that bleeds easily, or a mole that has multiple different colors and looks different than any other mole on your body, then contact your healthcare provider. 

How can you best protect your skin from the damaging rays of the sun?

Wear sunscreen daily and wear a hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing when you'll be in direct sunlight. Seeking shade can also help, so be mindful to take frequent breaks from out of the sun. If you are in an outdoor area that lacks shade, consider bringing shade with you. Remember, temperature is not a good indicator of the strength of the sun's rays. The sun can still damage skin on a cloudy or cool day. 

If you are in an Indiana 4-H club or are a 4-H club leader in Indiana, consider incorporating sun safety lessons and activities into your club meetings and requiring sunscreen for all outdoor activities. One fun activity that kids love is to make bracelets out of UV color changing beads. When the special beads are exposed to ultraviolet rays, they change colors to remind you to protect your skin by applying sunscreen.

If you are interested in more sun safety resources, contact Angie Frost at alfrost@purdue.edu. Visit our Indiana 4-H Facebook page (@Indiana4H) and tell us how you protect your skin while enjoying outdoor activities.

Angie Frost is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension and registered dietitian. She leads a team of county Purdue Extension staff, and collaborates with campus specialists and faculty to provide opportunities for Indiana 4-H youth to learn about healthy living.

Kay Nannet is a nurse practitioner from Spencer Dermatology Associates in Crawfordsville, Indiana. She has been working in dermatology as a nurse practitioner since 1992 and has worked with Dr. Linda Spencer since 1998.

Arin Weidner is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue ExtensionShe supports Indiana 4-H programming by creating technology-facilitated curriculum and learning opportunities. She also collaborates with Purdue Extension staff and faculty to develop new ideas for learning in 4-H for youth and adults.​​​​

Department of Agricultural Communication, 615 West State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2053 USA, (765) 494-8403

© Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Integrity Statement | Copyright Complaints | Maintained by Agricultural Communication

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact us at agweb@purdue.edu so we can help.

Sign In