While applying sunscreen may be a given when you’re spending long periods of time under the sun, it might not always be something you think about during a normal workday when you might be spending most of your time indoors.
You might also be tempted to skip protection when it’s cloudy, or if you’re traveling inside a plane or car. However, even then you’re still at risk for sun damage. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are responsible for skin damage, aging, and in some cases, skin cancer.
Anytime you’re going to be exposed to the sun, you should wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 with broad spectrum coverage, which means it protects against both UVB and UVA rays. It is recommended that you reapply sunscreen every two hours.
UVB rays are more likely to cause sunburns, while UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can lead to signs of aging over time.
Here are unexpected places and areas of the body where you should be using sunscreen—all the time.
If you ride in airplanes regularly, you are particularly vulnerable to sun exposure and damage.
Research has even shown that pilots and flight crews have more instances of melanoma than people in other professions.
One reason for this is that you’ve never been closer to the sun’s harmful rays than when you’re in a plane cruising above the clouds.
“You have less cloud protection when you’re on an airplane, so if you’re sitting by the window, that UV exposure can be significant,” Lauren Kole, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told Health.
While many windows and windshields are made to block UVB rays, they can still allow some UVA rays through. A 2015 study showed that pilots and cabin attendants were exposed primarily to UVA rays. Those researchers said that the exposure could be comparable to a tanning bed session.
That UVA exposure can add up over time and lead to aging or skin cancer. “If you’re somebody who flies all the time, then it’s a good idea to wear sunblock on places that are exposed, like your face and your hands and arms,” Jami L. Miller, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Vanderbilt University, told Health.
Like planes, cars also let in skin-damaging UV rays. “A lot of times we will see more sun damage and higher numbers of skin cancers on people's left side,” said Dr. Kole. This is due to the UV exposure drivers get through their windows.
Luckily, cars' windshields are made to block almost all UVB and UVA rays. However, a 2016 study found that the side and back windows offered less protection.
You can protect yourself by applying UV-protective films to your windows for extra protection, and wearing sunscreen on exposed areas when driving or riding in a car.
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Cloudy Days and During Winter
Yes, you still need to wear sunscreen on cloudy days, even if you can’t actually see the sun. That’s because clouds block some, but not all, UV rays.
And though you might see less of the sun in the winter, you should still be applying sunblock, especially in snowy conditions, which can cause even more UV rays to reflect onto your skin.
UV exposure adds up over time, eventually contributing to aging and possibly skin cancer, according to Dr. Miller.
Around Water, Snow, and Other Reflective Surfaces
Even if you’re in the shade or under a hat, nearby reflective surfaces can still cause UV exposure.
“Anything that's really light colored in the environment can potentially reflect the sunlight back to you,” said Dr. Miller. “You might not think you need anything because, for example, you're under an umbrella, but you still could get quite a bit of sun by the light bouncing off of other things.”
Under UV Lights
Research is beginning to show how harmful artificial UV lights can be to your skin. Here are a few examples:
- UV nail dryers at salons: A 2023 study showed DNA damage in human cells when exposed to the UVA radiation used in nail dryers. The cell mutations researchers saw in the study were similar to the mutations seen in skin cancer cases. Though the study wasn’t done on humans it indicates that UV dryers are likely a risk.
You can apply sunscreen before your manicure or purchase manicure gloves where only the nail is exposed. “Even then, you can still get skin cancer under the nail. So it's not 100% safe to even use that or sunscreen,” said Dr. Kole
- Plant grow lights: Indoor plant-growing operations are also a risky area for UV exposure. In fact, a recent study showed that workers at indoor cannabis growing operations were exposed to potentially harmful amounts of UV light during their shifts.
“If you work in an environment where you're under lamps that help grow things, and your arms are in it all the time, then you probably ought to be wearing sunblock,” said Dr. Miller.
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On Your Scalp and Hairline
It’s important to apply sunscreen to exposed areas of your scalp, like your part, as well as around your hairline, where hairs tend to be thinner. This is one of the most common areas where people forget to apply SPF, according to Dr. Kole.
You can also wear a hat for extra coverage. However, if the hat has holes, it’s probably best to apply sunscreen underneath, as well.
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Under Your Clothing
Not all articles of clothing are the same when it comes to sun protection. But here’s a rule of thumb: If you can see light through the fabric, then harmful UV rays can reach your skin underneath.
“If you're going to be wearing something that's really light or a very light weave, then wearing sunblock is really important,” said Dr. Miller.
Additionally, you should make sure to apply sunscreen around the edges of your clothing, because they can move around and expose unprotected skin. Because of this, Dr. Kole recommends applying sunscreen before getting dressed or putting on a bathing suit.
For extra protection, you can invest in clothing with UPF protection built in.
Your Feet and Ears
Though it may seem like your feet hardly see the light of day, it’s still important to apply sunscreen here when you’re wearing sandals or spending time barefoot.
People of color should be extra aware of applying sunscreen in these areas because skin cancer is easier to miss on darker skin, especially on the feet and hands, according to Dr. Kole.
Lastly, the tops of the ears are a commonly missed area when people apply sunblock.
When you’re applying sunscreen to your face and neck, be sure to spread it over the ears, paying special attention to the tops of the ears and earlobes.
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Under Your Arms
You likely don’t need to apply sunscreen to your armpits every day. But, it can be important in certain instances, like if you’re sitting or lying with your arms behind your head, or if you’re around a lot of reflective surfaces.
“If you're not lying out in the sun, it's probably not a big deal, but if you are lying on your back and you put your arms over your head, you might [need to apply sunscreen]. Also, remember, the sun reflects off [light-colored surfaces] and can get there,” said Dr. Miller.
Your eyelids, as well as the other delicate skin surrounding your eyes, are another area where you might forget to apply protection.
Dr. Kole recommends a non-irritating mineral sunscreen for your eyelids and under-eye areas.
It’s also important to keep a pair of sunglasses on hand to protect the eyes.
A Quick Review
Sun exposure adds up over time, eventually leading to signs of aging, skin damage, and sometimes cancer.
That’s why it’s important to apply sun protection in airplanes, cars, and areas with lots of reflective surfaces.
Additionally, artificial forms of UV light, such as plant grow lights and UV nail dryers, can put you at a high risk of UV exposure. So, if you spend a lot of time under these types of lights, you’ll want to apply sunscreen or wear some sort of protective clothing.
It’s also important not to neglect areas of the body like your scalp, underarms, and the back of your neck. And if you do, you might see the consequences as your body ages.
“It’s the places that people tend to miss where you can tell how old they are, like the back of the hands, the V of the chest, and the neck — but they might have a very young-looking face,” said Dr. Miller.