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Garden Edition — Sun sense for gardeners
Part One: Skin and Eye Protection

by Linda Coyner

Just like plants, gardeners need only so much sun to thrive. An experienced gardener wouldnt put a shade-loving fern in the sun any more than she would put a sun-loving daisy in shade. The light requirement for a fair-skinned, freckled person like myself in Floridas Zone 10 is full shade. Unlike plants, though, gardeners dont stay put.

Sun protection for the gardener is further complicated by the fact that gardeners are time-impaired. Once theyve stepped into the garden, all time is lost. Has it been 15 minutes or an hour Ive been out here? To a gardener, a quick stroll through the garden midday snipping this and watering that can easily turn into an hour.

Short of gardening under the light of the full moon, how do we tend our gardens in the daylight without getting sun damaged? A combination of common sense, sunscreen, and hi-tech know-how.

One way to minimize exposure is to take advantage of the safe window before 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m. The most solar-intense times of day fall in those seven hours in-between, when the atmosphere absorbs less of the harmful UV rays of sunlight.

Many smart gardeners already gear their day to to avoid the heat, gardening early and late. Still, its easy to get fooled into working outside right smack in the middle of the day if a cool wind picks up or clouds move in. Thats a mistake. Even on a cloudy day, 80 percent of the suns ultraviolet rays pass through the clouds.

Commonsense should also tell us that a hat and sunglasses are important. A wide-brimmed hat protects the ears, neck, and face, the areas where most cancers occur. Forget the open-weave straw hat. Opt for a hat with a tight a weave to block UV rays and choose a light color to keep cool. A good sun-protective hat should have a 3 to 4-inch-wide brim all the way around or a brim in the front and a Legionnaire's-style flap in the back. If you have a hat that does the job, you can add a lightweight neck flap made of hi-tech fabric called Solarweave. The Chic Sheik, sells for $15 online at Sun Grubbies (

Dont forget the sunglasses. Sun exposure can lead to cataracts and other eye damage. Sunglasses do not have to be pricey to do the job. Just make sure the tag or label says they block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.

For gardening during solar prime time, sunscreen is a given. But much about this valuable sun-protection tool is widely misunderstood. Reports indicate that people are guilty of not using enough, dont put it on before they go out, mistakenly think it gives them an extension on time in the sun, dont reapply frequently, and arent savvy about looking for UVA protection.

Sunscreen with at least an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating of 15, the minimum recommended, blocks 93 percent of UVB rays. An SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays. The SPF rating is also an indicator of how long you can stay in the sun before your skin turns beet red. If you would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, then SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically would allow you to stay outside for about 150 minutes without getting crisp. Once you've reached the time allotted by your SPF, more sunscreen doesnt buy more time.

Its only recently that experts acknowledge the important role UVA rays play in skin damage. UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB rays, and is considered the chief culprit behind cancers like melanoma, immunosuppression, as well as "photoaging," wrinkling and leathering.

Since SPF on labels only measures UVB, the FDA is considering adding a second rating system for UVA protection. In the meantime, advice about what ingredients provide the best UVA protection varies. Most experts agree that the phrase broad spectrum protection on a label usually means protection from UVB and some UVA wavelengths.

The American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) recommends looking for ingredients like benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (Parsol 1789). (requires first time registration) singles out avobenzone and zinc oxide as the best UVA protectors.

Luckily, applying the product is simpler than selecting one. Lather it on at least 30 minutes before going out so it has time to absorb. Keep the bottle handy. Youll need to apply it again every two hours. Don't be tempted to skimp. AAD recommends using an ounce, thats enough to fill a coffee scoop. Applying less than the recommended dose means youre getting less protection.

Be mindful of the UV Index, which provides a forecast of the risk of overexposure to the sun and indicates the degree of caution needed outdoors. The UV Index predicts exposure levels on a scale of 0 to 10+. A 0 indicates a low risk of overexposure; 10+ means a very high risk of overexposure. Check the UV index on any given day for your area at the EPA Web site.

In winter, ultraviolet rays are pretty much blocked by the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere because of the Earths tilt away from the sun. But dont think youre off the hook. Snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun's rays. And if youre outside for any amount of time, an SPF 15 sunscreen is recommended.

Other factors can make you at risk year round. Gardeners closer to the equator are at risk all year. The Sun Belt is called the Melanoma Belt for good reason. It accounts for the higher skin cancer rates. Those living at high elevations need to be aware that ultraviolet radiation increases 4 to 5 percent with every 1000 feet above sea level, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Gardeners close to any reflective surface water, sand, snow, or even concrete are vulnerable to rays bouncing back as much as 90 percent.

Next Time: Protective Clothing

More about Gardening


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