Smart Ways to Protect Yourself from the Sun

By Sarah Zimmerman

Apr 15, 2016

Paddling in the sun Photo by Kirk Rasmussen.

Since spring has arrived, many of us will or already have gotten caught outside unprepared for the sun’s harshness. After last weekend, I came back to the office and several people were either a little bit pink or a couple shades darker. This got me thinking: How much do I really know about sun protection?

After spending a little bit of time with the NOLS Wilderness Medicine book, I have some sunburn knowledge worth sharing. Hopefully it will help keep you and your friends safe and happy in the much-welcomed sunshine.

Sandal tan Photo by Oakley Originals.


First, you should know what causes skin damage.

Most sunburn is caused by short wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB), and causes skin to turn red and become painful. Over time, exposure to these damaging rays also increases your risk of getting skin cancer. In addition, these rays can cause superficial skin damage, including dark spots and wrinkles.

Not cool.

Next, you should know how to prevent sunburn.

Let’s be real… we love playing in the sunshine and it’s not likely that we’re going to stop. But here are a few ways that we can make it safer.


  • Sunscreen is rated by its Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which helps explain how long you can stay in the sun while wearing the product. You should be able to stay out in the sun for the amount of time it takes for your skin to turn red without sunscreen, multiplied by the SPF of the sunscreen. For example, I can stay out in the sun for about 40 minutes before I start to burn. So if I wear SPF 15 properly, I should be able to stay out 15 times longer, which would be 600 minutes, or 10 hours without being burned.
  • Keep in mind that most of the time, sunscreen gets washed away by water or sweat, and you will need to reapply it often to retain its effectiveness.
  • If you have certain areas that burn easily, such as your nose or ears, consider using zinc oxide or other creams that completely block out UV radiation
  • Don’t forget to protect your lips with SPF-rated lip balm.
  • With any of these sunscreens, it’s best to get into the habit of applying them 30 minutes before exposure to the sun. This will help them soak into the skin and retain their effectiveness.
Sun on a glacier Staying protected from the sun, even when there's snow. Photo by Nathan Bermel.


Choosing your Timing and Location

  • Exposing your skin to the sun in small doses promotes tanning, which protects your skin from burns. This is especially important to remember in early spring when our skin has been hidden away under cozy sweaters and long pants all winter. To avoid a burn early in the season, get out in the sun a little bit at a time, with the length of time depending on the sensitivity of your skin. Do remember though, that this exposure still causes degenerative changes in the skin, so you should still protect it with sunscreen as you gradually expose it.
  • As you gradually expose your skin, keep in mind that two thirds of UV radiation is received between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Avoid these harshest hours if possible. Try starting your adventure at sunrise or going for an after-work trek.
  • With the changing weather of spring, clouds can make you feel cooler because they filter out infrared heat, but don’t let them fool you. UV rays still get through and can damage your skin. Make sure to protect your skin even on overcast days.
  • Consider your location when determining how much sun protection you need. You should be especially careful when traveling at high altitude with thin atmospheric protection or on snow, as it reflects 70 to 85 percent of the sunlight. Depending on the time of day, you should also be more careful on the water since, like snow, it reflects UV radiation.

Protective Clothing 

Covering up from the sun
Photo by Sarah Zimmerman.
  • Wide-brim hats are a great way to keep sun off of your face, neck, and ears, which are places that are usually pretty susceptible to burning. If a wide-brim doesn’t suit your activity, try a ball cap with a buff to cover your neck—in addition to sunscreen on your face, of course.
  • Long shirts and pants may not sound like the ideal outfit for a beautiful, sunny day, but plenty of outdoor apparel companies are meeting the need for comfortable, lightweight clothing that protects the skin from UV rays. Some are even rated with SPF, helping you plan for long days of harsh sun. If you plan to be in the water a lot, this may be a good option if it’s inconvenient to continually reapply sunscreen.
  • Don’t forget about your eyes when you’re outfitting for the sun. Pick up a pair of 100 percent UV protection sunglasses.

Treating Sunburn

And since we’re not perfect, you should also know the symptoms of skin damage and how to treat them if they do happen. Even though we have all of these options to protect ourselves from the sun’s harsh rays, we sometimes get caught up in our outdoor fun and forget to make skin protection a priority.

  • Sunburn on the lips can cause fever blisters or cold sores. Try using a cold compress and lip moisturizers to relieve these symptoms.
  • Extensive sunburn can cause chills, fever, or headache. If this happens, apply cool, wet dressings and take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Sun bumps could appear on the skin as little blisters, which may itch and cause stinging and pain. Take an antihistamine and use topical steroid creams to help reduce the itching.
  • Snow blindness is burning of the cornea and conjunctiva in they eye that causes a feeling of dryness, pain, and grittiness. The eyes become red and produce tears excessively. These symptoms may not develop for 8 to 12 hours after exposure to the sun. It may take several days to heal, but cold compresses, pain medication, and a dark environment can help relieve the pain.
  • Moles may change shape, color, or size, or you may find that “sores” on the skin won’t heal. If this happens, see a physician to assess the damage, as these spots could become a concern for skin cancer.
Camping in the sun Photo by Manya Gordon.

Skin protection is serious. It’s our biggest organ, after all! But if we put a little bit of effort into preventing sun damage, we’re sure to be happier and healthier adventurers for the long haul.

Learn to prevent and treat common injuries and illnesses in the outdoors on a NOLS Wilderness Medicine course. 

Editor's note: Post updated 5/7/2018

Written By

Sarah Zimmerman

Sarah Zimmerman works through words, images, events, and the outdoors. She has experience as a kayak instructor and an agency coordinator, and she loves to combine her passion for nature with her strategic marketing and PR skills. Sarah strives to create and share engaging, useful content while bringing people together for worthy causes.

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