Shade, Covering Up Best Sun Defenses

Avoiding Direct Sun Exposure Better Than Sunscreen for Sun Protection

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 02, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

May 2, 2007 -- Ducking under a tree or putting on a shirt this summer may protect your skin from the sun better than relying on sunscreen alone.

A new review of research on sun protection shows avoiding direct sunlight and wearing clothes that shield the skin from burning ultraviolet (UV) rays are the best ways to protect against skin cancer and the aging effects of the sun.

“In a skin cancer-prevention strategy, behavioral measures -- e.g. wearing sun protective clothes and a hat and reducing sun exposure to a minimum -- must be preferred to sunscreens,” write researcher Stephan Lautenschlager, MD, of Triemli Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues in The Lancet.

Many studies have shown that sunscreen protects against UV skin damage and certain types of skin cancer. But researchers say sunscreens are often applied improperly and used as an excuse to increase time in the sun, which increases the risk of skin damage as anyone who has ever suffered a splotchy sunburn after a day at the beach can attest.

Less Sun Better Than Sunscreen

In their review of more than 200 studies on sun protection published from 1990 to 2006, researchers found reducing sun exposure through avoiding peak midday sun and wearing sun protective clothing and a hat are the best ways to protect the skin from UV damage.

“Often this solution is deemed to be unacceptable in our global, outdoor society, and sunscreen could become the predominant mode of sun protection for various societal reasons,” they write.

In addition, researchers say the type of clothing worn in the sun can make a big difference in terms of the sun protection factor (SPF) it provides.

For example, dry, tightly woven fabrics like denim, wool, and polyester provide significantly more sun protection than wet or loosely woven, thin fabrics like cotton, linen, acetate, and rayon.

Making the Most of Sunscreen

But if people aren’t willing to cover up or stay out of the sun during the summer months, researchers say they should learn how to make the best use sunscreen.

Their results showed the application of a liberal amount of sunscreen is by far the most important factor for effectiveness of sunscreen, followed by the uniformity of application and the amount of SPF protection it provides.

Other tips to maximize the sun protection offered by sunscreens include:

  • Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going out into the sun.
  • Use a waterproof sunscreen to reduce the need for reapplication after swimming or sweating followed by toweling and friction with clothing or sand.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with adequate UVA and UVB protection.
  • Inorganic sunscreens, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, that are opaque are less likely to produce an allergic reaction and are recommended for use on children.