University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Okay, we don't have the most and brightest sun in northern gardens, but what we have still can damage the skin, cause premature aging and wrinkling, and perhaps even skin cancer.  Use the proper precautions and all the sun that's good for your flowers (unless you garden totally in the shade) can be good, not bad, for you.

Start with a sunscreen product of at least SPF 15.  This merely stands for "sun protection factor" and is a measure of time it takes to sunburn.  So if you get a sunburn easily, say in 20 minutes, using this level would keep you from getting burned for 15 times as long or 5 hours.  Those products with ratings higher than SPF 30 only block an additional four percent of harmful sun rays so are not worth the extra money unless you are quite sun-sensitive.

The SPF rating actually refers to the protection from UVB rays.  There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays that damage skin, UVA and UVB.  The UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper, cause the premature skin wrinkling and aging, and increase the cancer-causing effects of UVB.  The UVB is the main culprit for sunburn and other skin problems such as melanomas (brown skin lesions).  Look for "broad spectrum" sunscreens that contain other chemicals to help against both UVA and UVB levels.

I like to use a level of 30, as the higher level helps make up for not putting on enough!  How much is enough?  Enough is probably more than most people usually use.  Figure on at least a tablespoon for each limb, and reapply every two hours no matter what the directions say.  Sunscreen can wash off with sweat, wiping your brow and face, or rinsing dirt off arms.

Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going into the garden, as it takes about that long for the active ingredients to connect with the skin cells.  Lips have no pigmentation, so burn easily.  Protect them with a lip balm containing SPF 15 sunscreen.

I find sunscreen lasts the shortest time on my nose (especially during the sneezing of allergy season!), and it also gets the most sun.  If this is the case for you, too, protect your nose with white zinc oxide cream, which is what many lifeguards use.  Sunscreen also comes in stick applicators.  These are convenient if you don't want to get your hands all greasy.  Or wipe these applicators above your eyebrows to prevent sunscreen from running down into your eyes.

Most sunscreens no longer contain a chemical referred to as PABA, as it can cause irritation, rashes, and allergies in some individuals.  You also can get sun reactions from taking certain medications, especially sulfa-based ones.  This includes certain antibiotics and diuretics (water pills).  If in doubt or you are concerned, check with your doctor or pharmacist about such reactions.

Perfumes and other fragrances also often cause sun reactions such as rashes, in addition to attracting insects!  Insects generally are more attracted by smell than sight, so avoid perfumes while gardening, as well as skin moisturizers, hair spray, or fragrant shampoos.

Some perfumes contain bergamot (from bee balm), which gives Earl Grey tea its scent and increases skin photosensitivity often causing rashes.

Other tips to avoid sunburn and damaged skin:

--Wear sunglasses, listed for protection against UV rays, to protect sensitive skin around eyes and help prevent cataracts later in life.

--Use a wide brimmed hat, not just a baseball cap, which protects only one side.

--Wear long sleeved shirts, or at least pants not shorts.  The darker the color, the more protection, but also the hotter and the more attractive to insects.  Hosing down your shirt for coolness can also make it more translucent.

In case you still get sunburned, in spite of these precautions (or by skipping some), have some lotion on hand, such as with aloe vera.  I like to use the pure gel, and keep it in the refrigerator so it goes on nice and cold!  Some people claim a bath soak also helps.  Soak for 15 minutes with a quart of strong black tea added to the water or two cups of apple cider vinegar (if you can stand the smell!).  A couple days after the burn subsides, use a salve containing calendula, comfrey, St. John's wort, or Echinacea to help heal the skin.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles