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What’s the UV Index?


A graphical representation of yesterday's EPA's UV Index in my town.

A graphical representation of yesterday’s EPA’s UV Index in my town.

It was 4 p.m. and I was slathering another coat of sunscreen on my kids when I noticed a woman staring at me. When I made eye contact she shook her head at me and said, “You know it’s 4 o’clock, right? It’s a little late in the day to get a sunburn.”

Not wanting to debate the topic I simply explained that my kids are very fair and I wasn’t taking any chances. She kept shaking her head at me and told me I was wasting my time.

I wasn’t, though. At 4 p.m. the UV Index still came in at a 4, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), means, “Take precautions if you will be outside, such as wearing a hat and sunglasses and using sunscreen SPF 30+. Reduce your exposure to the sun’s most intense UV radiation by seeking shade during midday hours.”

My kids (and anyone, really) could still get burned at 4 p.m. — at least in New York on that particular day. And my risk was doubled since we were on the sand, which reflects the sun’s UV rays and intensifies its strength. Burning aside, UV exposure is also responsible for skin cancer, premature aging, cataracts, and immuno-suppression (basically, a lagging immune system), so it’s not something I ever want to mess around with.

I think that woman might change her stance if she knew what the UV Index was and how it affects people. What is it? “The UV Index provides a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. The National Weather Service calculates the UV Index forecast for most ZIP codes across the U.S., and EPA publishes this information. The UV Index is accompanied by recommendations for sun protection and is a useful tool for planning sun-safe outdoor activities,” according to the EPA’s website, which lets you input your Zip code so you can get a handle on your local UV Index.

People assume that they can only be affected by the sun between 12 and 2 p.m., and that if they are outside in the morning they won’t get burned. It’s simply not the case. Here in New York the UV Index was already Moderate by 9 a.m. yesterday morning — meaning we had to take precautions — and didn’t hit Low status until after 5 p.m. That’s the summer for you.

In retrospect, I probably should have enlightened my sunscreen-phobic naysayer, but since I didn’t I’m hoping that this blog will help even one person avoid a nasty burn. Maybe it will be you.

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