HomeHealth TopicDermatology

5 Ways to Protect Your Skin From the Sun Without Sunscreen

Jennifer Clements, MD, MSEd, NBHWCPatricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH
Published on April 18, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Without protection, ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and other sources can be harmful.

  • Sunscreen is a great way to protect yourself, but there are many other helpful tools.

  • Wearing protective clothing is just one example of how you can protect yourself. 

Three friends enjoying a sunny day on the beach. They are each wearing beach straw hats and look really cute and fashionable.
PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images

From increasing your vitamin D levels to boosting your mood, sunlight can improve your health in numerous ways. But unprotected exposure to the sun can be unhealthy. The sun produces harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can cause problems like sunburn or sun poisoning. It can also have other adverse effects, such as premature skin aging, skin cancer, and eye damage. And it's not just the sun. Artificial sources of UV radiation, like tanning beds, are also harmful. 

Daily sunscreen goes a long way toward shielding you from UV rays. But there are several other ways you can protect yourself. Keep reading for helpful skin-saving strategies. They'll come in handy on your next beach vacation and for other outdoor activities.

1. Cover yourself with clothing and a hat

Covering your skin with protective clothing and a hat can help safeguard you from UVA and UVB rays. But certain clothes provide more protection than others. You can look for garments with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), which shows how much the fabric protects your skin from UV rays. For example, a shirt with a UPF 50 rating blocks roughly 98% of the sun's UV rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) requires a minimum UPF of 30 to grant its seal of recommendation for effective sun protection. 

But your clothes don't have to have an SCF recommendation to offer sun protection. Several factors determine how protective your clothes are, including: 

  • Color: Fabric color is one of the most important factors in determining UV protection. And research suggests that darker colors, like blue or red, are better at blocking the sun than lighter colors. That's because they absorb more UV rays. 

  • Material: Clothes made of tightly-woven fabrics –– such as denim, wool, and polyester –– tend to let less UV light in than lighter-weight fabrics with a loose weave, like unbleached cotton or mesh. You can test your clothes by holding them up to the light. If you can see through the fabric, it is probably not protective enough. 

  • Style: It helps to cover your skin as much as you can. You can do that with certain clothing styles, like long-sleeved shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and long pants or skirts. 

  • Fit: Looser-fitting clothes can reduce your exposure to the sun's rays. That's because tight clothes might stretch or tear, allowing more UV rays to reach your skin. Wet clothes are also less protective. So if you're planning to hit the pool or ocean, remember to change your clothes when you get out. 

2. Wear sunglasses to protect your face and eyes

UV radiation can also damage your eyes, eyelids, and the sensitive skin around your eyes. Luckily, wearing sunglasses can shield these areas and reduce the risk of conditions such as cataracts

But like your clothing, not all eyewear is created equal when it comes to blocking sunlight. For example, studies suggest that goggles and large sunglasses may be more effective at protecting your eyes from UV rays than smaller sunglasses. One way to check the effectiveness of your sunglasses is with the eye-sun protection factor (ESPF®). The ESPF measures how well lenses block the transmission of light and UV reflection. 

If your sunglasses don't have an ESPF rating, you can check for other factors. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends looking for sunglasses that block 99% to 100% of all types of UV light

3. Use an umbrella or parasol when going outdoors

Umbrellas are not just for the rain. Using an umbrella or parasol can stop direct UV rays from hitting your skin. But research shows that they don't block scattered or diffused UV rays, which may be common at the beach. So this shade-producing tool is most effective when you use it in combination with other sun-protecting strategies, like wearing sunscreen and protective clothing. 

4. Avoid UV lights

The sun isn't the only source of damaging ultraviolet light. Some artificial sources include:

  • Tanning beds: Tanning beds emit dangerous UVA and UVB rays similar to the sun. This, along with other forms of indoor tanning, increases your risk of skin cancer and may make your skin age prematurely. It can also cause eye damage and weaken your immune system.

  • Mercury vapor lighting: Mercury vapor lamps are designed to provide long-lasting light. People usually use them to illuminate large areas, such as streets, stores, and sports arenas. The bulbs have an outer layer to protect people from UV light exposure. But if the outer bulb breaks, unfiltered UV light can pass through. Such high UV levels can cause skin burns, headaches, and blurred vision. 

  • Halogen, incandescent, and fluorescent light bulbs: All three of these bulb types can expose you to UV radiation. Studies show that they don’t emit the same type or level of UV light. But people with certain conditions, like lupus or xeroderma pigmentosum, should make sure their light bulbs have protective coverings, which can shield against UV radiation from lamps.

  • Welding: Arc welding is another source of UV radiation that can damage your skin and eyes. Welders should always follow proper safety procedures.

5. Eat foods that provide sun protection

There are plenty of good reasons to adopt a healthy diet, including keeping your skin healthy. A healthy diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can promote healthy skin. 

Many foods contain antioxidants. These nutrients can help prevent cellular damage

Examples of antioxidants include: 

  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables include citruses such as oranges and grapefruits, red peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes. 

  • Vitamin E: Vitamin E-rich foods include wheat germ oil, almonds, and sunflower seeds. 

  • Carotenoids: Carotenoids can help keep your skin and eyes healthy. Sources of carotenoids include bell peppers, cantaloupe, mangoes, and sweet potatoes.

  • Niacin: Niacin-rich foods include chicken breast, salmon, brown rice, and peanuts. 

  • Folate: Folate-rich foods include beef, liver, spinach, and brussels sprouts.

Examples of omega-3 rich foods include: 

  • Fish, such as salmon and sardines

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil

  • Walnuts

  • Canola oil 

  • Some fortified foods, such as cereals and breads

Remember that many foods have multiple nutrients, so it is good to include a wide variety in your diet. 

The bottom line

Sunscreen is an excellent tool to help protect your skin from the sun. But it's not the only way to shield your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays. Several skin-saving strategies, like wearing protective clothing, can also help when combined with the right sunscreen. 

References

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American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.). What to wear to protect your skin from the sun.

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GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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