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do you need sunscreen on your face and ears if you wear a hat

Should You Apply Sunscreen to Your Face & Ears Even If You Wear a Hat?

Do you need to apply sunscreen on your face and ears when you wear a hat? It's a great question. Another way to look at this question is: how dangerous is reflected UV light?

Your face and ears are still exposed to UV rays when you wear a hat!

Yes, the amount is far less but you are still exposed. That's because UV rays bounce off of the ground and surfaces and into the shade under your hat. 

It's tempting to believe that shade totally protects your skin, but think about it for a minute. We know that light rays bounce off things just like pavement, sand, walls etc. When UV rays hit pavement, they bounce upwards to hit your skin. When UV rays hit a sunny wall, they bounce off too - yes - potentially into the shade. If that shade is created by your hat, then the rays hit your skin.  

So, the bottom line is....

When the sun is up and you are outdoors, your skin will get some UV ray exposure.

This reflected exposure will be greater when you are,

  • at the edge of the shade near the sunny area,
  • on the water,
  • near a highly reflective surface.

sunburn from snowTo give you a real-life example of how reflection intensifies UV exposure, the worst sunburn I ever had as a kid came from skiing at Squaw Valley in the spring on a sunny day. The rays were bouncing off the snow, so I was getting them from both above and below. I burnt so badly that the whites of my eyes burnt too.

Another example, to clarify the risk of exposure even when you wear a hat, is the time I got a lovely sunburn wearing a broad brim hat on a spring day while sailing on a white sailboat in the San Francisco Bay. My family was out for a day on the bay with another dermatologist and his family. UV rays were bouncing off of the water and the boat. Those were the days when mineral sunscreens were not widely available and I was wearing a chemical avobenzone product. I reapplied it, but the exposure was too great for the chemicals (which breakdown when light is blocked) and my fair skin burnt badly.

I'm sad about both of those mistakes. Most of us have stories like that. What are yours?

I like to recommend a logical multi-level strategy for using shade to protect your skin from the sun.

  1. Anticipate that UV rays bouncing off reflective surfaces will be worse in the direct sun. Place yourself in deep shade.  Bouncing UV rays are more likely to hit something (or someone) on the periphery of the shade and less likely to bounce all the way into deep shade. It's why, when you select a table at an outdoor cafe (a lovely fantasy in the dead of winter, isn't it!) be sure to ask for one well under the shade, not right on the edge.
  2. Likewise, when you pick a sun hat, the broader the brim the better. 
  3. Wear broad spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen on all exposed skin not directly covered by UPF 50 (or equivalent) clothing. That means your face, ears, neck etc. when wearing a hat. 

I want to dispel some more myths so that you protect your skin well from UV damaging rays:

Do you think that the softer morning and evening sun is gentle and safe?  

Tempted to skip the hat in early morning or late afternoon?

Is wearing a hat better than wearing sunscreen?

No, on all three! I'm sorry but those rays do harm your skin in all of these scenarios. UV rays bounce and morning and evening rays are intensely UVA rays which are very damaging. Yes, UVA feels softer and sunburns your skin less, but still is very potent at causing wrinkles, pigment problems, and skin cancer. Also, the sun hits your skin tangentially when it is low in the sky and sneaks under your perfect wide brim sun hat. Look at the photo above and see the sun on the woman's chin!!

Wear a hat and sunscreen for the best UV protection to prevent sun damage when the sun is out.

Double up with hat and sunscreen to keep your skin healthy. I created my SunSavvy Around Town Kit to give you just this. It even comes with a nifty UV Detecto Ring to prove to everyone that UV rays do bounce! 

dermatologist approved sun hat and sunscreen

Find all my sunscreens and dermatologist approved sun hats for the entire family on my Sun Protection Product Page. I have only products that I trust for myself, my family and all the patients that have depended on me for 30+ years. My patients and I have put these products to the test. Plus, a lifetime of trial and error and a lot of education has made me very particular.

So, the bottom line is........

Yes, you need sunscreen on your face and ears even when you wear a hat.

And, I encourage you to wear a hat. Spring is around the corner (thank goodness) and it's the perfect time to go hat shopping. 

What about ball caps, are they good enough sun protection for your face and ears?

No!!! My patients have heard me call ball caps my job security. I see it all day in my practice, more sun damage on the sides of the face and ears in people who have relied on ball caps when they are outside. Don't! Please don't think you are creating enough facial shade when you wear a ball cap. Those hats keep the glare out of your eyes and protect your forehead skin, but that's it. Wrinkles, uneven pigment, and skin cancers will be abundant and problematic on your cheeks, crow's feet, nose, and ears - keeping your dermatologist very busy.

Are visors enough sun protection for your head and neck?

No! More job security for my profession! Visors, like ball caps, don't give enough peripheral head and neck protection. They don't protect the scalp either. Skin cancer on the scalp is no fun. Skin cancers on the back of the neck, ears and behind the ears are common. A visor gives no protection there. 

3 tips for a dermatologist-approved sun hat:

  1. Made of fabric or material that is UPF 50 rated
  2. Coverage of your entire scalp
  3. A full 3-5-inch brim

Click her to see the very well-priced hats that I trust.

Look again at the image at the top of this article. I doubt that hat is UPF 50! See the filtered light on her skin?! It's cute, but for real sun protection, it needs a tighter weave. There are plenty of cute tightly woven hats in the world. Go find yourself a nice one - it's a shopping opportunity ;-).

Reference:

Warren R. Stanton, Monika Janda, Peter D. Baade, Peter Anderson, Primary prevention of skin cancer: a review of sun protection in Australia and internationally, Health Promotion International, Volume 19, Issue 3, September 2004, Pages 369–378, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dah310