Protect Your Skin this Summer

by Jane Malec, EMGV

After an enjoyable sunny afternoon in my garden far too often I have come inside with my skin on fire. Most likely it’s my arms that have turned some shade of red and are hot to the touch and tender.  It would have been one of those days when I suddenly realized there was extra time in the day to run outside and play. The plan would have been to do a little weeding or tuck a new plant into a tired looking container.  Fifteen minutes turns into an hour or more. The yard looks better but the gardener is worse for the wear.

Sometimes the after affects a sunny afternoon can have you reaching for the aloe vera bottle but the unseen damage to your health cause from too much sun exposure is potentially much worse. There is no shortage of available information warning us that excess sun can cause everything from unattractive brown spots as we age to potentially fatal melanoma. It’s clear that we need to protect our precious skin while gardening  as much as any other outdoor activity, but still some of us take risks.

The Dangers of Sun Exposure
The results of a Consumer’s Report survey conducted in 2014 revealed that more than 50% of the respondents did not use sunscreen and, among those in the age group of 60 and older, that number jumped to 61%.  It shouldn’t then be surprising that the incidents of non-melanoma skin cancers jumped 77% in the years between 2000 and 2014. The rates of  melanoma, the most deadly form skin cancer, have also increased. We would like to think gardeners are very aware of this health danger but, even still, many of us know at least one “dirt digger” who has had a form of skin cancer. If you and I have met, you know at least one person.  Other health issues besides cancer include cataracts, immune suppression and premature aging of the skin.

In the past, the experts erroneously believed that most sun damage occurred by the age of 18 leading people to believe that the damage was done so no need for protection as they grew older. The expert opinion has changed. By the age of 40 we have racked up only 50% of lifetime sun exposure and the health risks continue to rise with age. Plus, as we age, many of us will begin taking medications, NASAIDS and statins for instance, that can increase sensitivity to the sun.

Protect Yourself
So, we know that it is nearly impossible to be a gardener and avoid exposure to the sun’s rays. There are options to lessen the risk.

  • Limit time in the midday sun which is usually referred as 10 am to 2 pm.  Some experts have range up to 4 pm. Avoid prolonged exposure.
  • Check the UV index ratings before heading out. Many weather phone apps can provide this information.
  • A cloudy day does not negate the risk. Follow the same procedures as sunny days.
  • Wear UV-protected sunglasses, a hat and tightly woven, loose-fitting clothing. If possible, wear clothing that is UPV rated.
  • Always wear sunscreen. Always wear sunscreen … always!

Protective Clothing – The New Frontier

Many improvements have been made to the sun-protective clothing offering over recent years. There is now a UPF (ultra violet protection factor) fabric rating system similar to that of sunscreen. The standards are voluntary but if the industry doesn’t adopted them, these standards could become mandatory. There are a growing number of companies that offer and even specialize in this clothing. Rash guards, popular in the surfing community, were one of the first widely used protective coverings and have been adopted by many sport enthusiasts. However, don’t be fooled by the ratings; Just as with sunscreen, no article of clothing will provide 100% protection from UV rays. Here are a few guidelines:

  • UPF ratings of Good, Very Good or Excellent are based on test results from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists along with the ASTM (an international standard rating organization).
  • The approximate average percent of UV block denotes the value of the fabrics ability to block–no fabric can block 100% of UV rays.
  • There must be a specific numeric UPF value on the label or tag.
Typical UPF label information

The clothing is becoming much more fashionable and appealing with offerings such as pants, shirts, dresses and and wide brimmed hats. Also, for the serious sun avoider, there are arm protectors and face guards.

If you don’t want to invest in UPF clothing, choose wisely when pulling items out of the closet. Pick hats and clothing made from tightly woven and dark-in-color material. If you can see through the fabric, UV rays can penetrate it. Long sleeves and pant legs are important and a visor keeps sun off the face but provides no protection for the scalp which is very vulnerable to sun damage.

There are many choices in sunscreens – all range of colors, smells, and prices. Not all are effective in protecting against damaging sun rays.

  • SPF 15 is the minimum recommended protection; 30 + is the optimum.
  • SPF 15, for instance,  means a person can stay in the sun 15-times longer before burning.
  • SPF refers only to UVB rays; look for protection for UVA rays as well.
  • Check expiration dates on products and toss out after one to two years of use. A good rule of thumb is to replace product at the beginning of every summer season.
  • Reapply every two hours (more often if heavily sweating). Even high SPF sunscreens lose their effectiveness after this length of time.
  • Don’t forget to apply to ears, lips, necks, tops of feet or backs of hands and scalp.
  • Insect repellent may reduce effectiveness. Verify this before heading outside.
  • Read the label.

Some people have sensitivities to sunscreens with fragrances or ingredients like avobenzone. There are many sunscreens that use zinc or titanium oxide that are a good alternatives.

Enjoy Time in the Garden
Gardening is one of life’s sweet pleasures. It is a passion that evolves and brings joy no matter what our age. Let’s protect ourselves in the sun so that we will be around for every stage of the process … from planting our seeds to bringing the harvest to new generations. Be safe in the sun.


NCSU Skin saving facts

ACES The Danger of Sun Exposure

KSU Protective fabrics

Protecting yourself from the sun .. sunscreen basics.

ASTM International