How to Protect Your Skin from the Sun

Apply sunscreen. Don’t apply sunscreen. Avoid the sun. Get more vitamin D from the sun.  Sunscreens are toxic and don’t work. Sunscreens are essential…what’s a person to do?

Over the years, I have seen all the news and studies, but I’ve also developed my own methods for managing sun exposure based on a weird condition I (and my daughters) have. We suffer from photodermatitis, which basically started for each of us when we hit puberty—suddenly, sunscreen or no sunscreen, our bodies develop rashes when we are exposed to too much sun. Call it “nature’s sunscreen” if you will, but I’ve found lots of ways to cope over the years that have saved me money (from not having to buy sunscreen) and improved my vitamin D levels.


Well, first, what I have found (and what my doctor told me) is that the best treatment for photo dermatitis is light and regular sun exposure during the early morning and late afternoon. I am not tan by any means, and I don’t try to be. But I don’t hesitate to go out into the sun…except for one caveat: I try to avoid all sun between the hours of 11 and 3 (during the day, not night!). The very last thing you would ever see me do is sit on a beach at noon—unless the beach was in, say, Iceland. The great thing about enjoying the sun during the off hours is that beaches are not as crowded, and other outdoor venues are also easier to navigate.

If I do have to go out during peak hours, I use a number of techniques: Shirts, hats, and umbrellas.

I do own a few “sun shirts“, but often a good ol’ plain cotton shirt works well to cover arms. For swimming, I put long-sleeved swim shirts on my kids (and me if I’m going out during peak hours). No one seems to mind, and it’s easier than the ritual of slathering goop all over the place.

As far as hats go, I prefer cowboy hats, not only because they look better on me, but also because they cover my ears and other places (A visor leaves the scalp exposed and, frankly, is not my style. Baseball caps leave the ears exposed, and make us curly-haired girls look a bit like Bozo the Clown.) My little daughter wears an Amish bonnet, and it works really well and keeps her cool, too. Here’s a picture of her wearing one in Iowa.

Umbrellas seem kind of pretentious and odd until you’ve been to Japan. Once you see the ladies there walking around with their colorful parasols, well protected by the sun, you suddenly see how beautiful and practical they can be. A Japanese girl visited me once, and she even would use a fan to keep the sun off her face.

Lastly, if I must use sunscreen due to unavoidable circumstances, I always check the Environmental Working Group website to see what’s safe. And even then I might only put it on my face.

I do go to the dermatologist regularly, and have had a few precancerous spots removed with liquid nitrogen, because I am really fair-skinned and got seriously burned (a lot) when I was a kid. My sister has survived a bad bout of melanoma, so I know how hard it can be if things go wrong. But I still have always been suspicious of the advice of always using sunscreen. Turns out I may have been right. But from my sister’s experience, I know every day of life is precious, and it’s always good to be careful.


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10 Responses to How to Protect Your Skin from the Sun

  1. Jennifer August 4, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    I am in the same boat as you. I had spots removed, my parents have more serious damage. I know this sounds weird but as my diet becomes cleaner I burn less. In fact, I don’t use sunscreen and take measures like – don’t go out in the sun during peak hours and wear a hat and I haven’t burned. This includes trips to Florida and a week at the beach in Maine during July. My children are the same way! No sunscreen and they are pastey white. We are very irish skinned – meaning fair with freckles and auburn highlights in our hair. I should add this is since becoming a holistic nutritionist – strange huh? I also got my vit. D levels checked and my dr. said, “you have the best levels I’ve seen in years!”

  2. Amanda August 4, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    I’ve been doing the same “sun ritual” as you since I was pregnant with my son four years agho. There was something about smearing sunscreen on that really turned me off, but I’ve got fair freckeled skin. So we go out before 11 and after 3 and if I we have to be in the sun mid-day we use Badger’s unscented SPF 30. Actually feels pretty good on the skin once it soaks in.

  3. Katrina August 4, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Oh my goodness! You just described my entire family…burn, burn, burn in the sun. Add to that this year’s scare regarding sunscreen and I don’t want the adults or my grandchildren using it. We also try to adhere to the “no sun 11 to 3” practice, but I extend it to 4:00 pm most days. Love hats, too, and wish parasols would come back in style!

  4. maria (farm country kitchen) August 4, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    Let’s start a new style! I will if you will 🙂

  5. TH August 4, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    As the mom of a red-haired, fair-skinned child who spends her entire summer outside covered in sunscreen, this is a very interesting read. Thank you for giving me a reason to pay attention and do some research on the best thing for her skin.

  6. Angie August 9, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    I live in the city and all the ladies in Chinatown use parasols! I want to bring the trend back, too, ladies!

  7. Donna in Delaware August 9, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    I am black and I get so dark just from heat. I really don’t have to be in the sun. My mother gets sun poisoned if she is exposed too long because her skin is so sensitive. I remember how she looked in 1981 when we took a trip to Florida. While she was driving, she was exposed to too much sun and broke out in a horrible rash that really hurt. It took her weeks to get rid of it. If I use my oven, the very heat from it will turn my skin darker, so needless to say the sun and I don’t get along. I don’t go anywhere without my trusty wide brim cotton hat, even if it is cloudy, the rays still shine through. I can’t wear sunscreen because I end up looking like Casper the friendly ghost. A good hat is all you need. A wide one, but one that looks good and looks good on you. Luckily, I look good in hats.

  8. Suzanne September 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Thanks, Maria! I’ll start a new trend with you! Where do we get the lovely parasols, anyone know? I love that idea!

  9. Bert Grosman September 14, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    Vitamin “D” is fat soluble and is stored in your fat. People who get out in the sun and tan in the summer have fewer or no colds and flu in the winter. I’m sorry Maria but the best time to get your vitamin “D” from the sun is between 11 am and 3pm. If anything, you shouldn’t use sunscreen for the first 20 to 30 minutes and then put it on. There are sunscreens out there that don’t use chemicals to block UV radiation. If you are light skinned and susceptible to sunburn there are supplements you can take to prevent that from happening. It’s called “astaxanthin” and it’s the naturally occurring Carotenoid pigment found in many foods such as wild salmon, crustaceans and plankton. It can help you prevent sunburn and skin damage. It also has the ability to cross the blood/brain barrier and is good for eye health. Good luck to all with their health.

  10. jk September 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm #


    this year i never burned. im outside all day for work and i exercise outdoors. fair skinned scandinavian heritage and all i used this year was a pure unrefined shea butter from sheaterra. found them online and a little goes a long way, which is nice on the wallet.

    one could find this stuff at other retailers, both online and at an actual stores. great stuff.


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