Health & Fitness

Elke Shaw-Tulloch public health column: It’s time to get serious about sun protection

The trees have new leaves. The flowers are in bloom. And in the most welcome signs of spring, we have warmer temperatures and abundant sunshine. While the sun is necessary for life and all those buds and flowers, too much sun exposure can lead to some serious health effects, including dry skin, wrinkles and skin cancer.

Did you know the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes? As you enjoy outdoor activities such as bicycling, walking and gardening, follow these recommendations to help protect yourself and your family from the damaging effects of the sun.


You can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, tree or other shelter to provide relief from the sun. That will help, but it’s not enough. Your best bet to protect your skin is to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing when you’re outside — even when you’re in the shade.


When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and skirts, which can provide protection from UV rays. Clothes made from tightly woven fabrics offer the best protection, and darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors.

If wearing this type of clothing isn’t practical, at least try to wear a T-shirt or a beach cover-up. Keep in mind that a typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15, so use other types of sun protection as well.


For the most protection from the sun, wear a hat with a brim all the way around to shade your face, ears and the back of your neck. Look for a tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, because it works best to protect your skin from UV rays. You will want to avoid straw hats with holes because they let sunlight through and reduce your protection. If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15 or staying in the shade.


Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of developing cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sunburn. Select sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays for the best protection. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays from sneaking in from the side. The majority of sunglasses sold in the United States, regardless of cost, meet this standard.


Sunscreen should indicate Broad Spectrum Protection on the label. That means it protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Again, you should use sunscreen with at least SPF 15. Put it on 10 to 20 minutes before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Remember to put a thick layer on all parts of exposed skin and get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. Sunscreen works best when combined with other options to prevent UV damage. Some other important things to remember about sunscreen:

SPF: Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a sunscreen with at least SPF 15.

Reapplication: Sunscreen wears off, so you will need to put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off.

Expiration date: Check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.

Cosmetics: Some makeup and lip balms contain some of the same protective agents used in sunscreens. If they do not have at least SPF 15, don’t use them by themselves.

How can I protect my kids?

Because children will be exposed to UV radiation their whole lives, it is important to model sun safety behaviors at an early age. Many parents do not properly apply sunscreen on their children because little ones are wriggly and don’t want to sit still long enough. But hang in there and get that sunscreen on them. Blistering sunburns during childhood significantly increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Sunscreen should be applied and reapplied to all exposed areas if your child is outside for longer than two hours or has been swimming.

By teaching children about sun safety and encouraging them to take precautions in the sun, parents can help their children understand the dangers associated with sun exposure as well as the ways to avoid them.

No sun for babies

When you and the baby are outside, find shade instead of using sunscreen until they are 6 months old. Doctors recommend that sunscreen not be used on babies younger than 6 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using sunscreen on infants for small areas such as the face and back of hands where protection from clothing is inadequate.

It’s not always easy to stay out of the sun, so it is important to dress the baby in long-sleeved shirts and pants. Tighter-weave clothing has more protection than loose weave. You can tell by holding the clothes up to the light: The more light you can see, the less protection there is. A hat brim should be wide enough to shade eyes, nose, face, ears and back of the neck.

How does the outside environment influence exposure?

The intensity of the sun’s UV rays reaching the Earth’s surface varies and should be considered when you plan outdoor activities. The National Weather Service issues the UV Index, a daily forecast of UV intensity, for the United States. You can obtain your local UV Index forecast daily from local weather stations, in newspapers (including the Idaho Statesman) or popular mobile apps for your cellphone. The higher the UV Index forecast, the stronger the sun will be and the greater the need to follow all the sun protection action steps.

In general, UV strength is greatest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on sunny summer days. Up to 80 percent of UV rays pass through clouds, however, which means that sunburn is possible on cloudy days as well. Snow, water and sand also increase sun exposure by reflecting incoming UV rays and making it especially important for skiers, boaters and beachcombers to wear clothing and hats and apply sunscreen.

By following these recommendations as closely as possible, you can still enjoy the great activities Idaho has to offer while protecting yourself and your family from the harmful effects of too much sun. For more information on sun safety tips, including No Sun for Babies, please contact the Idaho Careline at 2-1-1.

Elke Shaw-Tulloch, master of health sciences, is the state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Find out more about Department of Health and Welfare services at