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"Even if you’re sitting under an umbrella on the beach, you can still get enough reflective sun coming up to damage you," says Dr. Jeff Ashley.
updated 5/27/2004 6:17:33 PM ET 2004-05-27T22:17:33

On Wednesday, May 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NOAA’s National Weather Service adopted the new Global Ultraviolet Index to better measure skin-damaging UV rays. To shed some light on the new Global UV Index and offer some tips to help people learn not to burn, dermatologist and director of Sun Safety for Kids, Dr. Jeff Ashley answers some questions for "Today":

The new index is designed to help people better understand which precautions to take to protect themselves from different levels of UV radiation. It will also standardize reporting of UV radiation at the earth’s surface in the United States and other countries. It was developed by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme and other international organizations.

What is the new global UV index?
The new Global UV Index is an upgrade by the EPA to come into a standard so that we could have a worldwide agreement on these values to help people plan for their outdoor activities.

What was wrong with the old one?
It wasn’t that the old one was wrong, but that individual countries had independently invented their own UV indices so that it made it difficult to compare from one country to the other.

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And about two years ago, the World Health Organization and other international agencies put together a standard and now the EPA is joining that world standard and is one of the first countries to do so.

Every year more than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer. What are some of the other health risks of overexposure?
Of course, there’s the immediate health problem of getting a sunburn, which is very painful and which strongly increases the risk of getting skin cancer later on in life.

The other problem is with the eyes because ultraviolet exposure has been linked to cataract formation. And over 50 percent of people 65 or over have cataracts due to sun exposure.

U.S. EPA

Let's work our way up the new global UV scale. Even with a low index rating of two or lower, you can be overexposed. How is that possible?
If your skin is very fair, if you have very little natural pigment and if you’re out long enough, even at the relatively low levels, it’s still possible to get enough sun to burn.

Even a moderate UV rating from three to five may seem safe, but what's the danger here?
Again, it depends on the amount of pigment in your skin. If you’re very fair and you’re out for a reasonably long time, you can end up with a sunburn which increases the risk of cancer.

Would sunglasses to protect your eyes be a good idea at this point?
Yes.

A UV rating from six to seven is high. Is this when we should be especially concerned with our children?
Absolutely. Of course, we should be especially concerned with our children all the time so that they’ll begin to learn these sun safety habits. Again, especially if the children are fair skinned, this is where you have to start from the earliest stage to teach them sun safety measures.

Is it still true that we get most of sun exposure while we're kids?
Unfortunately, that has recently been disproven. We used to say, based on an older study, that 80 percent of a lifetime amount of sun damage occurs before the 18th birthday. But based on a recent study that was very well done, I’m retracting that statement. And I think, fairly soon, the American Academy of Dermatology will probably take it back.

Eight through 10: Now we're well into the danger zone. What precaution should we take here?
Everyone should be careful at these higher UV levels. And very fair-skinned people should seriously consider avoiding the sun if possible when the UV index is that high.

Don't you also have to be more careful about reflective surfaces like water and white sand?
Ultraviolet light is reflected off of light surfaces. So a concrete sidewalk or beach sand reflects a tremendous amount of ultraviolet light. So even if you’re sitting under an umbrella on the beach, you can still get enough reflective sun coming up to damage you.

And where 10 wasn't enough, the new scale goes to 11. Should we just stay indoors at this point?
Actually, the new scale goes even higher than 11. It’s just that 11 is so extremely high, it doesn’t make much different if it goes higher than that. And most of the places, at least within the continental United States, won’t see greater than 11 during the year. You could be on a cruise ship and the UV index could be as high as 20 if you were down by the Equator.

But the point is that if it’s in the extreme 11-plus range, fair-skinned people have just got to be extremely careful and take all sun precaution measures if they have to be out and to try not to be out if they can avoid it.

Is this dangerous for those with darker pigmentation?
Yes it can be when it gets up to those extreme levels.

It never hurts to go over ways to protect yourself. Sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher is one way. What are others?
Covering up and wearing a hat are very effective sun safety measures. Seek shade. You’re going to be especially careful between the hours of 10 in the morning and four in the afternoon when the ultraviolet radiation is most intense.

We all know to put on sunscreen, but what are most of us doing wrong?
Number one: Hardly anybody puts on the right amount. And number two: We haven’t been concentrating on blocking UVA rays as well as UVB rays. Always look for a product that has UVA/UVB coverage and put on enough.

We’re using the two fingers rule. So you spread sunscreen down the length of your index and long finger and that’s enough to cover your face and your neck which is way more than most people use.

When it comes to sunglasses, what should the label say?
Look for the label that it blocks UV light. Just don’t get any old sunglasses.

And you found a neat way to add sun protection to your clothes in the wash. What is it?
It is called Sun Guard by RIT. It’s a powder you throw in the laundry and it makes your clothing sun safe. It adds a UV protectant to your normal clothing.

WHAT YOU SAW ON "TODAY":

A lot of people don't dress properly for the sun. Can you tell us what you're wearing?
Demonstration: Dr. Ashley in a jogging outfit
This is my jogging outfit. The point is it keeps me virtually completely covered and yet it’s cool and comfortable — even when the weather is hot. In fact, this is the jogging suit that runners in Death Valley in July like to wear because it’s so well ventilated and yet it’s 97 percent UV blocking.

Can you tell us about the golf outfit Lisa is wearing?
Demonstration: Lisa Guston in golf outfit
The thing I’d like to point out is she’s wearing a broad brimmed hat. She’s got on a long-sleeved polo instead of a short-sleeved shirt. And this particular polo is made of a fabric that on the inside wisks the moisture off your skin and on the outside it’s like a traditional polo yet lighter. So it’s actually lighter in weight, therefore cooler. And it's also got ventilated vents under the arms. The other thing is she’s wearing two gloves. So many golfers only wear one glove and they end up with severe sun damage on the ungloved hand.

Russell is all set to go outdoors after school. What is he wearing?
Demonstration: Russell Williams in school outfit
There are two major things to note with Russell's attire. He has a hat first of all. And so when he goes out to play on the school playground, he’s going to put on his hat that’s going to help protect his face from the sun. The other thing is he’s put on his play shirt. And when he’s in the classroom, he’s just in a T-shirt. But he’s put on this long-sleeved shirt over his T-shirt so he’ll have much better sun protection when he’s out on the playground. He’s also wearing long pants.

It's not always easy to get a boy to wear a hat. Would a baseball cap be enough?
Perhaps any hat is better than no hat. But baseball caps leave an awful lot of the sides of the face and ears and neck exposed. So it certainly is not the best choice if you’re serious about sun protection which all fair-skinned people should be.

How should we dress for the beach? 
Demonstration: Michaela Brown in swim gear
First of all, it’s cute. Isn’t it? And look how much more of her skin is covered in this coverup bathing suit as compared to the traditional little two piece. So it’s a whole lot less screen to have to put on. She can get in the water quicker. And she’ll actually have better sun protection because she won’t have to worry about it washing off.

And finally Jonathan, our fly fisherman, what did you do here?
Demonstration: Jonathan Oestreich in fly fisherman gear
Everybody should be wearing sunglasses by the way. The fly fisherman is going to have a broad-brimmed hat. And he’s going to be wearing a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. The long pants can go right in the water and come back out. And they have a zip off leg so that if they get wet, you can zip them off and hang them up to dry. Or you can be in shorts and put sunscreen on your legs.

Note: The National Weather Service and EPA will provide daily UV forecasts for 58 major metropolitan areas, as well as forecasts by zip code. Information about the Global UV Index, including downloadable files and graphics for weather providers and links to sites about UV radiation, is available on EPA’s website at www.epa.gov

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