This Is the #1 Way To Protect Yourself Against Harmful UV Rays (It’s Not Sunscreen)

It’s that time of year again—the weather in many parts of the country is (finally) getting warm, and people are eager to get outside and enjoy some sunshine. And while the vitamin D and fresh air can be very beneficial, there is one thing you need to be concerned about: dangerous UV rays from the sun.

Why UV Rays are Harmful

We know UV rays can be harmful, causing painful sunburns and even skin cancer in the longer term. But why? Board-certified dermatologist Hope Mitchell MD, FAAD, who is in private practice in Ohio, notes that there are two types of UV rays that can hurt us—ultraviolet A rays and ultraviolet B rays, which can both cause skin cancer. UVA rays can cause your skin to age prematurely, Mitchell says, while UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn. UV rays can also seriously damage your eyes.

It's important to remember that UV rays are a danger year round—even on days when the sun isn’t blazing. Mitchell says that many people mistakenly assume they don’t need to worry about sun protection on cloudy days, but UV rays can still cause damage when it's cloudy!

The American Academy of Dermatology notes that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Fortunately, it is highly treatable if caught early—but the best strategy is to be proactive and lessen your risk of getting skin cancer in the first place. Mitchell notes that sun exposure is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer, which is why it’s so important to make sun protection a high priority to keep yourself safe from dangerous UV rays.

Related: Here's How To Treat Sunburned Lips —and Prevent It From Happening Next Time

The Best Way To Protect Yourself from UV Rays

The easiest and most foolproof way to protect yourself from UV rays is to avoid them. And while it may be difficult (if not impossible) to dodge the sun completely, Mitchell says you can lessen your risk by limiting prolonged exposure to the sun, particularly during peak hours, which are generally between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“On hot, sunny days, shade from trees, umbrellas and awnings are great options,” says Mitchell. “Wear protective clothing (UPF protection) including long sleeves, a wide-brimmed hat that will protect the entire circumference of your face and sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection to protect your eyes.”

Related: Dealing With a Painful Sunburn? Here's How to Prevent Peeling—and What to Do When It Happens Anyway

Other Ways To Reduce the Risk of UV Rays

Not surprisingly, Mitchell says wearing sunscreen is also key to protecting yourself from the dangers of UV rays. She recommends looking for a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. But she stresses that you must use sunscreen correctly—and consistently—to get maximum protection.

Related: The Best Sunscreens of 2023—And How to Choose the One That’s Right for You

“Apply one ounce (a shot glass) of sunscreen to exposed areas of the arms, legs, chest and back at least 15 minutes before going outside,” Mitchell says, adding that you should also protect your lips by using a lip balm that has an SPF of 30 or higher. And again, Mitchell reiterates that you should follow this same routine even when the skies are hazy. “Don't be fooled by the overcast sky. Even on a cloudy day, UV rays can penetrate the atmosphere and damage your skin.”

Be sure to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours while out in the sun. Mitchell says a common mistake people make is assuming the sunscreen they apply early in the morning will protect them all day.

While sun protection goes a long way in protecting your skin, it’s impossible to completely eliminate all risks of skin cancer. But since skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early, Mitchell says you should be diligent about checking your skin on a regular basis, and consult a board-certified dermatologist if you notice any new or suspicious spots on your skin, or if anything on your skin looks unusual, or starts itching or bleeding.

Next up, find out the 10 most common chronic skin conditions—and the most important things to know about them.