Sun-Protective Behavior

Sun-Protective Behavior

Avoiding sunburns and intermittent high-intensity sun exposure (especially in children, teens, and young adults) reduces the chances of getting melanoma skin cancer. Engaging in sun-protective behaviors when outside can reduce one’s exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and sunburn. For example, avoiding intense sun when possible and seeking shade can reduce the risk of sunburn, and one of the goals of the Surgeon General’s Call To Action to Prevent Skin Cancer is to increase the availability of shade in outdoor recreation, education, and workplace environments. Additional behaviors such as wearing sun-protective clothing (e.g., long sleeve shirt, long pants, and wide brim hat) and sunglasses can help prevent excessive exposure to UV. Broad spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB) with a sun protection factor of 15 or higher (SPF15 or higher) should be used in combination with other sun-protective behaviors and applied appropriately (e.g., proper amount applied prior to sun exposure and with timely reapplication).

Although sunbathing and tanning are strongly associated with sunburn, recent data indicate that most sunburns occur in contexts unrelated to intentional tanning. Results suggest the need to promote multiple forms of sun protection tailored to specific contexts, especially when being physically active and when spending time near the water.

Protective behaviors are most needed when UV intensity is greatest, which occurs during the summer time and between 10 am and 4 pm. However, UV index can also be high during cloudy days, and for some regions of the U.S., such as the southeast and southwest, UV intensity is high year-round. To help maximize one’s protection, multiple sun-protective behaviors should be practiced, especially for those with sun sensitive skin. People with sun sensitive skin are relatively more likely to incur sunburn and are at greater risk for skin cancer. Sun sensitivity reflects a person’s characteristic skin response (e.g., a burn, a burn and then tan, etc.) after prolonged sun exposure or after a long period or season of being relatively unexposed. Though related to sun sensitivity, skin color and ethnicity are not adequate proxies for sun sensitivity.

In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has improved standards for sunscreen content and labeling to minimize misleading statements and better ensure formulations deliver the advertised benefits.

The percentage of adults aged 18 years and older who reported that they usually or always practice at least one of three sun-protective behaviors - using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing (a long-sleeve shirt, and/or wide brimmed hat shading the face, ears, and neck, and/or long pants/long skirt), or seeking shade when going outside on a sunny day for more than an hour.

Beginning in 2005, the question on hat use (as part of protective clothing) was modified to more accurately distinguish baseball caps (which do not fully protect the face, neck, and ears) from other types of fully protective hats. Graphic illustrations of different hats were used, and respondents were asked a separate question about baseball cap and sun visor use.  Also, long pants/long skirt was an item added in 2005.

The data series for this measure page have differing years of availability with 'protective clothing' available for 2005+, 'sunscreen use (SPF 15+)' available for 2000+ and 'likely to seek shade' available for 1992+. For the graphs that compare the different methods or present a total of all three protection types, trends were calculated for 2005+. For graphs that show the series individually, the full range of available data is shown.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Health Interview Survey NCI and CDC co-sponsored Cancer Control Supplement, 1992-2010, 2005–2015.

Refer to the Data Sources page for more information about data collection years 2019+.

  • There are no Healthy People 2030 targets regarding protective measures that may reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Healthy People 2030 is a set of goals set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services.

UV Exposure and Sun-Protective Behavior