Beyond Sunscreen: Other Bright Ways to Protect Your Skin
Yes, you should still slather — but also try these shady tactics
Sunscreen's great, but it isn’t the only way to save your hide from the sun (and the wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer that too much exposure can bring). In fact, a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet stated that “wearing sun protective clothing and a hat and reducing sun exposure to a minimum” was preferable to relying solely on sunscreens.
That isn’t to say that you should ditch sunscreen. It still should be front and center in your arsenal against UV rays. But by adding the following tactics you can bump up your overall SPF substantially.
Most fabrics provide some UV protection. “Tan lines show that clothes do a pretty good job,” says Rachel Hershenfeld, MD, FAAD, of Dermatology Partners, Inc. in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “And while sunscreen has to be reapplied to be effective, clothing doesn’t wear off.”
When assembling a sun-protective wardrobe, keep these tips in mind:
● Tighter weaves are more protective than loose ones. Makes sense: The more light that can seep between the fibers of a fabric, the more danger there is to the skin underneath. Hold your shirt up to a light. If you can see pinpoints of light through it, the fabric won’t block as much.
On the other hand, tight-fitting clothing can be less protective than looser garments because when fabric stretches across skin fibers separate to let in light. And it goes without saying that a shirt with sleeves is more protective than a tank, a long skirt more protective than shorts and so on.
● Dark clothing is more protective than lighter colors. The more dye in a fabric, the more UV light it absorbs before the rays reach your skin. For example, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, pale yellow cotton fabric has a UPF between 5 and 9. The same fabric dyed black has a UPF of 32. This doesn’t mean you should dress as if for a funeral all summer: Bright, saturated colors will help keep skin safe too.
● Sun protection clothing really works. Sun-rated clothing is designed to block UV rays. As with sunscreen, these wardrobe wonders are labeled to show how much protection they provide. In the case of sun protective clothing, the rating is called UPF, which stands for ultraviolet protection factor. An item such as a rash guard with a UPF of 50 will allow only 1/50th of the sun’s radiation to reach your skin — even if you’re wet. By contrast, a plain white T-shirt has a UPF of about 5, and potentially less if wet.
Because sun-rated clothes generally are designed for summer, they’re also lightweight and more comfortable to wear in the heat than regular clothing.
Related: Test Your Summer Sun Smarts
You can wash that UV protection right into your clothes. Detergents and laundry boosters designed to increase the UPF of regular garments work this magic simply by lacing the fabric with some type of sunscreen. These products won’t damage fabric or change its texture or appearance. If you’d like to transform a favorite sundress into a sun-blocking dress, look for a product that has the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation, such as Sun Guard.
Hats and sunglasses
These can go a long way toward protecting your head (including your scalp), face, eyes, ears and neck from UV rays. When selecting headwear and shades, keep these tips from Hershenfeld in mind.
● Hats made of mesh or straw hats won’t protect your scalp. Likewise, a loose-weave brim won’t shade your forehead and eyes very well. And if the brim is also a loose weave, it won’t be great, either. You can use the same trick with hats that you use with clothing: Hold them up to the light. If it shines through, toss that hat out of the ring and keep looking.
● The wider the brim, the better. Speaking of brims: One that goes around the entire hat is better than a visor style. “A baseball cap made of cotton will cover your scalp and the visor might protect your forehead and part of your nose,” Hershenfeld says. “But it will leave your ears, the lower half of your face and your neck exposed.”
She recommends a full-circle brim that’s several inches wide.
● With sunglasses, the color doesn’t matter. Any glasses (even prescription eyeglasses) that have 100% UV protection will do the job. Keep in mind, though, that the shade of your shades does matter to your vision: Clear or very pale lenses will leave you squinting in bright sun.
Shunning the sun
During peak hours of sunlight — between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — the expert advice is to stay in the shade as much as possible. That said, not all shade is created equal.
● The less visible light seeping through, the better. If there are beams coming through your tree cover, you’re less protected. “Any light filtering through is akin to wearing a loose weave top,” says Hershenfeld. Deep shade, in which you can’t see any sky or light penetrating, will protect you better but isn’t a sub for sunscreen and clothing.
● UV rays can reflect — and you may not see them. UV rays bounce off surfaces like sand, pavement, water and (in winter) snow. In fact, the Skin Cancer Foundation warns against relying on beach umbrellas for protection because of phenomenon, unless they are very large.
● Cloud cover won’t prevent a sunburn. In fact, you could fry your skin more on a cloudy day than on a sunny one by being fooled into thinking it safe to skip the sunscreen.
“Clouds can block UV-B rays, which are the ones that burn skin faster, but they don’t resist UV-A rays,” she says. “It may take longer to get burned but it can still happen without your even realizing it.”