The Fact Behind the Viral “3-Hour Warning” for Gardeners

Britain is known for introducing us the best of the best — think Princess Diana, Harry Potter and fish and chips. Now we can thank the UK for bringing us a fantastic sun safety idea: the 3-hour-gardening rule.

The concept is simple: don’t go out in the sun to tend to your plants during its strongest rays, which generally occurs between 11 AM and 2 PM. After British gardener Shannen Goodwin explained that the 3-hour gardening rule can offer powerful protection from sun-related health problems, the internet took note and the idea went viral.

Really, though, the 3-hour rule is just excellent common sense. “I treat many skin cancers on gardeners on their hands, arms, ears and neck,” says Ellen S, Marmur, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and founder of Marmur Medical in New York City. Not to mention the fact that too much sun can adversely affect the rest of your body: think dehydration, heat exhaustion or sunstroke.

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Many gardening pros already follow the rule religiously. “Unless I’m in the middle of a big project, I’m not outside working in the heat of the day,” says Tara Nolan, co-owner of Savvy Gardening and author of Gardening in Your Front Yard. “If I am working on a project, I’ll only stay in the sun for a couple of hours at a time, well covered.”

How can you adopt the 3-hour rule effectively and easily — and still find enough time in the day to spoil your roses rotten? Use these 6 key tips, and then get your bloom on!

Editor’s note: Here’s how to interpret the index: UV Index 0-2 means sun exposure danger is at a minimum. UV Index 6-7 means moderate risk of harm from the sun. UV Index 8-10 means high risk of sunburn and sun damage. UV Index of 11+ means a very high risk to your health from the sun.

Time your trimming. 

Choosing the chillest part of the day to garden is first and foremost. “When the temperatures are high and the sun is out, I would recommend gardening early in the morning, or early in the evening when it’s cooler,” says Nolan. “I try to get out as early as possible in the morning to water the vegetables and herbs in my raised beds. At this point, I’ll sometimes do a bit of weeding or pruning as I go while it’s still cool outside.” 

If that’s not possible, and you just have to head outside when the sun is a little stronger, you can actually track the intensity of rays in your area. Enter your zip code here at the US Environmental Protection Agency’s UV Index Search to find out the precise UV measurement for where you live is up-to-the-minute. 

Slather on the sunscreen. 

It’s vital to be covered on every exposed part of your skin, period. “Apply sunscreen every 1–2 hours during summer sun exposure, especially since you will likely be sweating while gardening,” says Dr. Marmur. “This is key for fighting wrinkles, dark spots and skin cancer. I reapply sunscreen every hour – I am proudly geeky about my sun protection! The lowest SPF I would recommend is SPF 30 – anything lower, and you run the risk of sun damage.” 

Nolan makes sunscreen her top priority, too. “Any task I do outside in the yard starts with applying sunscreen,” she says. “It’s by my patio door, so I can grab it as I go outside and not forget. I have a SPF 60 spray that I’m using right now. It goes on my arms, legs and neck, and ears, depending on the hat I’m wearing. I often buy sport sunscreens–they tend to stay on longer when you sweat. ”It’s important to choose a sunscreen that you really, really like–it should smell delicious to you, and the texture should feel great. That way, you’ll never be tempted to skip it. 

And don’t be skimpy: the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying the amount that would fit in a shot glass, or two tablespoons, of SPF to each part of your face or body that’s touched by the sun–including when you top up. So keep it convenient. “Bring your sunscreen spray with you in your gardening tool kit,” suggests Dr. Marmur.

Dress smart. 

You want your clothes to offer protection, but not be so heavy they make you overheat. The solution: choose a loose-fitting natural fiber outfit. “Try wearing long-sleeve lightweight shirts with a neck scarf,” suggests Dr. Marmur. You absolutely need to protect your head, too. A recent study found that 34% of surveyed patients who had gotten skin cancer always or frequently wear a hat in the sun–a good habit for everyone. “I always wear a hat,” says Nolan. ”I wear a wide-brimmed straw hat and a selection of baseball caps in the garden to protect my face and scalp from burning.” 

Dr. Marmur is also a big proponent of hats. Pick a chapeau that offers lots of coverage – hat on Amazon also has an optional face net, which, bonus, can protect you from bug bites. Or, choose clothes with built-in sun protection. “I have some tech fabric t-shirts that are cooler than a cotton tee,” says Nolan “If it’s not too hot, I’ll wear long pants in the garden when I’m weeding, and gloves. The good thing about gardening gloves is they can also protect your hands from the sun. When I wear gauntlet gloves, I have even more arm protection!” 

Take breaks.

Take frequent breaks – as often as every 15 minutes – to escape the rays. “When it heats up and the sun is out, but I still want to garden, I’ll often follow the shade around my yard,” Nolan explains. “If I’m potting up a container arrangement or building a raised bed or other project, I’ll move the project to the shade, if possible. Or, I’ll choose a shady spot that needs weeding or tidying up so I’m not working in the blazing sun. I also bring a water bottle around the yard to stay hydrated.”

Stay hydrated.

Keep drinking water as you work. The Centers for Disease Control recommend sipping 8 ounces of water every 15–20 minutes when you’re in the sun to avoid heat exhaustion. 

Know the signs of heat exhaustion, too.

According to Mayo Clinic, sun exposure, high temps  and physical activity can bring on this potentially dangerous condition. When you have heat exhaustion, your body gets too warm. Symptoms to watch out for:

*Cool, damp skin

*Goose bumps, even in the heat

*Excessive sweating

*Feeling faint or dizzy

*Feeling tired

*Having a fast, weak pulse

*Having muscle cramps

*Feeling nauseous

*Having a headache

*A drop in your blood pressure when you stand up

If you experience any signs of heat exhaustion, stop gardening, go to a cool place and drink lots of water, or sports drinks. Heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening condition, can be even worse — it stops your body from being able to cool itself. Confusion, heavy sweating and loss of consciousness are signs. If you or someone you’re gardening experience these signs, call 911.

Remember, gardening is lots of fun — and has a lot of health benefits associated with it — but only when done safely.

Headshot of Lisa Mulcahy

Contributing Writer

Lisa is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including The Essentials of Theater.

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