Hats can be cute - and they're a must whenever you spend time outdoors in the sun.

Sun Protection Gear Guide

Here comes the sun… and that means it’s time to cover up.  That’s the message from skin cancer (and beauty) experts, who warn that rates of all three types of skin cancer are rising fast, and that the majority of us are not taking this danger seriously enough when we when exercising or having fun outdoors. Here are three key things you need to protect yourself.

1. A Sun Hat

Haters of “hat-head,” apologies, but sun hats are a must for most outdoor activities. (The main exception being biking, since you’re wearing a helmet, though some bikers wear a long-brimmed baseball hat underneath their helmets.)

But not just any hat will do – the best hats are made from sun-protective fabric, or straw that’s tightly woven or lined. You also want a hat with a wide brim that extends all the way around – baseball hats leave the sides of the face and neck exposed, as well as the tops of the ears. Outdoor Gear Lab and Trailspace recently rated sun hats according to sun protection, comfort, breathability, and other factors. It’s also helpful if your hat has a tie, stretchy inner band, or some other way to stay on in the wind.

2. Sun Protective Clothing

Unfortunately, many people are confused about the amount of sun protection they get from covering up with clothing. According to skin cancer experts, the average cotton T-shirt offers a UPF protection factor of 5, meaning that it blocks just one-fifth of ultraviolet rays.

Companies like REI, Coolibar, UVSkinz, and Solartex make clothing, hats and other gear out of specially designed fabrics that are rated like sunscreens for their ability to block up to 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays. But when making such purchases, be judicious – there’s really no need for a UPF 50 swimsuit, since it’s not covering up much of your body in the first place! Instead, purchase one or two key pieces such as pants and a long-sleeved shirt, overshirt, or a beach cover-up that you can throw on whenever you need protection.

On a budget? According to recent research by Consumer Reports, there’s no need to shell out for specially designed clothing, you just have to choose shirts and pants made from thicker, tightly woven fabrics or from fabrics containing spandex, which shrinks the holes between fibers. For example, a Hanes Beefy-T was found to have a very good sun protection factor, at least when dry. Of course, many of these fabrics are also harder to wear in the heat, which is where breathable and wicking UPF clothing come in.

3. Sunscreen

Why is sunscreen last in the list? Because most of us think slapping some on as we walk out the door is all the sun protection we need, and that’s a mistake. That said, yes, you need sunscreen, and you need to wear it all the time, not just on days when you plan to be out in the sun. And wear plenty of it – recent consumer studies show that most people mis-use sunscreen by using too little and not re-applying often enough. What kind to use? Choose one with an SPF of 15 or higher, experts say. But not all sunscreens with these ratings are as effective as they claim.

Consumer Reports tested 20 top sunscreens and found just seven of them to be effective. And according to the Environmental Working Group’s annual sunscreen guide, out 80 percent of 1700 sunscreens tested for effectiveness and environmental safety were found to be ineffective, unsafe for health or environmental reasons, or both. Choose one of the recommended products and you should be covered – but only if you use it according to doctors’ instructions.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.