Understanding Sun Protection Basics

People are finally beginning to realize that although sunshine is an important component of most outdoor activities and a great mood enhancer, excessive exposure can lead to much unpleasantness. A painful sunburn is the most immediate consequence of excess exposure. Long term, excess exposure can damage the skin making it prone to wrinkling. And, finally, protection from the sun's damaging rays is important for anyone who wants to limit his or her risk of developing skin cancer.

Sun protection is important anytime you'll be outdoors between the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, when the sun is at its highest. People don't realize that they can still burn even though the sun isn't shining. Overcast days are some of the worst times for being in the sun unprotected. And because ultraviolet rays can reflect off certain surfaces, people need protection from the sun when snow covers the ground and also when in the water, when lying or playing on the sand and even when on a cement or grass surface.

Ultraviolet rays are the different wavelengths of energy that are produced by the sun. Even though harmful, the sun's energy is necessary to all human life. Fortunately, as life on earth has evolved so has the capacity to tolerate UV rays. The most important protection against the damaging ultraviolet rays is the ozone layer - a layer in the stratosphere that absorbs most of the various types of UV rays before they reach the earth's surface.

Most of this radiation or energy from the sun is invisible to the naked eye. The fact that the radiation is mostly invisible is likely the reason why the sun can be so harmful. It's hard to convince a person to protect against something that can't be seen. Of the ultraviolet rays, the two that are responsible for skin damage are UVA and UVB rays. The sun also generates UVC rays, but fortunately these extremely damaging rays cannot penetrate the ozone layer and therefore pose no threat to humans.

The longer and more prevalent of the two, UVA rays are responsible for long-term skin damage because they absorb deep into the skin. Their strength remains uniform regardless of the time of day or time of year. UVB rays are shorter and are what causes skin to tan or sunburns. Our bodies need UVB rays to produce Vitamin D, an important vitamin. Their strength varies based on time of day, time of year, altitude and also distance from the equator.

The UV Index is a scale measuring from 0 – 11 (low to extreme) and it's used to determine the intensity of the sun's radiation, particularly the likelihood that skin will or will not redden when exposed to the sun for various periods of time.

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