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Sun Protection Basics for Gardeners

Gardeners are at high risk for sunburn and skin cancer. Here are the steps to take to protect yourself.
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Gardeners are at high risk for sunburn, sun damage and skin cancer, but there are simple and very effective ways to protect yourself while you still enjoy your garden:

  • Do most of your work before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., thereby avoiding the hours when the sun is strongest.
  • Wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 and that protects against both UVA and UVB rays every time you go out to garden. Apply it 30 minutes before you go outside and reapply every 2 hours. (More on sunscreen below.)
  • Wear long pants and sleeves. Dark colors and tightly woven fabrics protects the skin better than light-colored clothing. Consider special sun-blocking clothing.
  • Wear a hat with a brim that shades your face and neck. Wear UV-blocking sunglasses, plus socks, shoes and gloves.
  • When applying sunscreen pay close attention to the back of your neck and the backs of your hands, especially if you don't like to wear gloves.
  • Check your skin once a month, head to toe. If any moles or freckles change shape, let your doctor know. Visit a dermatologist once a year for a checkup.


There are a lot of options on the sunscreen aisle, and choosing a product can be confusing. It partly depends on when and for how long you'll be outside and what you'll be doing. However, everyone should use a sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection. These are the two types of ultraviolet radiation that damage the skin. UVB causes sunburn, but UVA penetrates the skin more deeply and causes wrinkles and leathery-looking skin. UVA worsens the cancer-causing ability of UVB, and may cause cancer on its own. Remember, only UVB causes sunburn. Even if you don't get a sunburn, UVA rays may be damaging your skin. So choose a product that indicates it blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

What about SPF? This stands for Sun Protection Factor. It measures the product's ability to stop UVB rays from harming the skin. The number represents how much longer it will take for you to get a sunburn while wearing the sunscreen. Example: If it takes 20 minutes for you to get a sunburn with no sunscreen, an SPF 15 sunscreen will theoretically hold off that sunburn for 5 hours—about 15 times the 20 minutes. However, regardless of SPF, any sunscreen must be reapplied every 2 hours to remain fully effective. So which SPF should you choose? Experts agree that SPF 15 or higher is your best bet. If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, have had skin cancer in the past or are sensitive to light, choose SPF 30 or 50.

The best products for gardeners are water-resistant or "sports" sunscreens. These hold together well on your skin while you're working outside. You should still reapply them every two hours. At each application, use one ounce of sunscreen to cover your body. This is about the size of a shot glass. Use sunscreen even if you're gardening on a cloudy day. Up to 40 percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays reach through the clouds.