Sun Protection

A young boy stands in the waves at the beach wearing water wings and a wetsuit.

A young boy stands in the waves at the beach wearing water wings and a wetsuit.

There are many terms used when product developers and experts discuss the sun and our exposure to it. The following definitions should help you weed through the advertising and right to what the product is really offering.When I was a teenager, it was a badge of honor to get a sunburn because then it was supposed to turn into a sun tan. With very fair skin, I quickly realized that getting a sunburn did me no good. My skin just peeled and returned to very pale. When I was in my later teens, the U.S. started learning that getting sunburned was not good for our skin and could cause skin cancer. However, it has taken decades for that knowledge to translate into products that protect our skin.

Why should we protect our skin?

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. and its numbers are on the rise. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer. Good news? Skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer there is. Bad news? We get most of our sun exposure when we are children. If we don’t protect our children from the sun, they are more likely to get skin cancer. 

What do we need to know?

There are many terms used when product developers and experts discuss the sun and our exposure to it. The following definitions should help you weed through the advertising and right to what the product is really offering.

UV – ultraviolet – This is light composed of wavelengths shorter than visible light (we can’t see it), but longer than X-rays.

UV Index – The UV Index provides a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun on a scale from 0 (low) to 11 or more (extremely high). On the EPA website you can type in your zip code and it will give you the index for the day and hourly. Here is what I found for 80227 (Lakewood, CO) on February 26, 2015.

A small badge which rates the UV Index as 4 (moderate) on a scale of <2 to 11+.

A small badge which rates the UV Index as 4 (moderate) on a scale of <2 to 11+.

A timeline of UV index for 80227 zip code and descriptions of the varying levels. To view descriptions for your area, visit The EPA's UV Index search.

A timeline of UV index for 80227 zip code and descriptions of the varying levels. To view descriptions for your area, visit The EPA's UV Index search.

This can be very helpful in explaining to children why they need to take precautions before going outside to play or do sports.

UVA – Causes aging - This is a certain band of ultraviolet light. It goes deeper into our skin. It is responsible for aging and wrinkling our skin. Tanning booths emit UVA. It is now known that tanning of any kind is damaging the skin’s DNA. If you are first exposed to a tanning bed as a youth, your risk of getting melanoma increases by 75%.

UVB – Causes burning - This is also a specific band of ultraviolet light. It penetrates the surface layer of our skin (epidermis) and is the chief cause of redness and sunburn. The most significant amount of UVB hits the U.S. between 10am and 4pm April to October.

SPF – sun protection factor – This is a measurement used with sun screens. It indicates the amount of time it will take for UVB rays to redden the skin. The rating is only good for UVB rays. The following table can help you decide what type of protection you need. Most cancer prevention sites recommend that you wear sunscreen every day with SPF of at least 15.

What SPF Value Means for Your Skin

NOTE: To obtain the results above, you must put on enough of the sunscreen when you apply it. It is also recommended to reapply after 2 hours and immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.

UPF – ultraviolet protection factor – This rating scale for fabrics was developed in Australia and adopted by the U.S. It indicates what fraction of the sun’s UV radiation can reach the skin (UVA and UVB) through the fabric. The following chart can help you determine if the clothing labeled as protective really is.

UPF Ratings Measured by Percentage of UV Radiation Blocked

If at all possible, wear fabric rated Excellent. This will ensure very little exposure.  In comparison, a thin white cotton t-shirt only has a UPF of about 5 allowing 1/5th of the sun’s rays to pass through. Also note that wet fabrics have a reduced ability to block out UV radiation unless they have a UPF protection category of Very Good or Excellent.

How do we protect ourselves and our children from the sun?

There are some programs that recommend not going out in the sun between 10am and 4pm. However, I think this is going too far if we want our children to experience nature and enjoy the outdoors. Based upon what I have read (see Further Reading for references), here are the steps that I recommend to schools and parents before they send children outside to play.

  1. Check the UV index for your zip code. The information provided there will help determine how much protection is needed.

  2. Put on sunscreen. No matter what the UV index, it is recommended to at least put on sunscreen with an SPF of 15. If your child is very fair, they should have a sunscreen that is appropriate for their skin. If you can, buy biodegradable sunscreen. It helps the environment and protects our natural resources like reefs.

  3. Wear a hat, preferably one that is both broad brimmed or has ear and neck flaps. The fabric on the top of the hat should be light and the fabric on the underside should be dark. The dark underside keeps the sun from reflecting off the hat and back into your face.

  4. If the UV index is high or burning easily is a problem, wear sun protective clothing, preferably in the protection category of Excellent. I have listed some of the web vendors that provide this type of clothing at the end of this blog. The ones I have listed have fabrics that are tested to ensure that they meet the UPF ratings. Some of them are quite expensive, but they seem to last forever. We bought some in 2001, we are still using them in 2015, and they are still protecting us. Some of the sites have sales. My favorite one to find deals is Sunday Afternoons. For example, today, February 26, they have a girls’ shirt on sale for $10.50. You can also take regular clothes and wash them in Rit Sun Guard Laundry Treatment. This treatment has lasts through about 20 washings and gives your clothes a UPF rating of 30. One ounce costs about $6 (right now $3.99 on the site given above) and works for a whole load of clothes.

  5. Wear sunglasses. Our eyes get the brunt of everything we do. Having sunglasses available for children to wear will help keep their eyes healthy. According to the American Optometric Association, look for sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB radiation and screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light.

  6. Use shade. Whether it be an umbrella or a tree, shade helps protect us from the sun, especially on a day when the UV index is high.

What if we are going to spend a day at the beach?

Everything I said in the section above still holds. However, I would highly recommend wearing swim clothes that have a sun protection rating of Excellent. If you get both tops and bottoms, you only have to remind your children to put sunscreen on the exposed areas every 80 minutes to 2 hours.

I have provided links to references and clothing vendors in the sections below to help you find the information and clothing you need. There are several resources for teachers/homeschoolers to help you teach your students about sun protection. If you have any references you like or clothing vendors you have found helpful, let us know what they are in our comments section.

Further Reading

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) There are three links to the EPA that are very useful.

Free Sun Safety Resources contains a plethora of teacher resources from videos to worksheets grades kindergarten through adult.

SunWise Kids has some online activities that you can use with your students/children.

UV Index provides a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun by zip code.

American Academy of Dermatology gives very explicit information on exposure to the sun and skin cancer. This link goes to the Kids and Sun Safety page. There are wonderful tools here for teachers and parents to help children remember sun protection guidelines.

Skin Cancer Foundation has a great deal of information. The link provided takes you to the Teacher Resources page of the website. The section on Skin Cancer and Skin of Color can be very information for everyone in your classes. They also have a good section on babies and small children.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a wealth of information on skin cancer and its prevention. The link provided goes to the How Can I Protect My Children from the Sun? page. However, there is information on this website for children, teens, and adults.

SunSafely has very good information for children and teens about sun protection. They also have school resources. But the coolest thing is the sun bathing app. You can download it to your phone and track how much sun you are getting. It allows you to set alarms and track your vitamin D intake.

Sun Clothes