In 19th century America, tanned skin was the unfashionable mark of outdoor laborers, while today’s golden glow is a symbol of affluence, leisure...and much health policy debate.
Experts agree that the sun causes premature aging and skin cancer, though they can’t seem to agree on the modes of prevention.
The following is a primer for Sun Diegans hoping to enjoy SoCal’s year-round solar bounty-whether sun worshiping at noon or jogging at dawn.
The ABCs of UV rays
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UVC rays (the most dangerous form of ultraviolet light) are effectively filtered by the atmosphere, never reaching Earth.
UVAs, however, are super rays. Ubiquitous rain or shine, in summer and winter, they penetrate clouds, windshields and clothing. Although UVAs don’t cause burning, the sneaks do create deep dermatological damage such as premature aging and predispose skin to cancers. Humans have UVAs to thank for shoe-leather complexions, brown liver spots, crow’s feet and the proliferation of cosmetic surgery centers.
UVBs are fire-breathing monsters, coming out full-force at noon and in summer months, causing blistering sunburn, redness and searing pain. They’re the primary factor in squamous cell carcinomas and melanomas.
Lotions and Potions
Dr. Agata Marriott of Del Mar Dermatology recommends sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for broad-spectrum protection that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. She says there are now plenty of less opaque zinc sunscreens on the market that won’t cause sunbathers to resemble the chalk-nosed lifeguards of the Baywatch era. Other sun-blocking must-haves include lip balm, UV-protective sunglasses (to help ward off cataracts) and a wide-brimmed hat to protect the scalp, face and neck.
Neala Moch, owner of The Stratford House spa and salon in Del Mar, suggests people use about a shot glass of sunscreen to cover their entire body, including a tablespoon for the face (with more to be applied if spending a day at the beach or a pool party). People should remember to cover their necks, chest, arms, ears and hands.
For beach-bound women, Moch suggests mineral-based makeup with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30, reapplied as necessary.
The Fine Print
Sunscreens are notorious for their laundry lists of unpronounceable ingredients. First on the A-(void) List is oxybenzone. Though it is an organic ingredient, it has been found to damage DNA strands when exposed to sunlight, creating cancer-causing agents known as photo carcinogens, which are activated by UV rays.
Retinyl palmitate, a close cousin to Retin-A, has also been linked to hormone disruption and a heightened risk of skin cancer.
Parabens, a group of chemical preservatives often found in sunscreens, have been linked to dermatitis, rosacea and even breast cancer. This class of skin avengers includes methylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben.
Dr. Marriott says says aerosols offer an inferior source of sun protection, and recommends people use creams or gels instead.
Burned, Baby Burned: soothing sun damage
Moch suggests placing compresses of milk on sore spots, as lactic acid helps alleviate the sting, Pure aloe vera and arnica gels help soothe and heal-Moch suggests Sarna and Aquaphor lotions.
According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, a professor of surgery at Columbia University, the powerhouse pigment, lutein (found in leafy greens such as spinach, kale and chard), creates an internal sun shield that not only lessens burning, but also reduces the risks of squamous skin cancers. Luteins are also known to protect optic nerves from sun damage.
Vitamin D has been praised for putting the skids on assorted cancers. Doctors can test patients’ level of this important nutrient and prescribe a supplement as needed.
Though the sun helps us absorb Vitamin D, Dr. Marriott cautions, “The benefits of using sunscreen by far outweigh Vitamin D deficiency problems, and a shortfall can be recouped by a (Vitamin D) supplement of 1000 to 2000 IU a day.”
Everything under the Sun
In 1997, Marta Phillips, motivated by both her parents having developed melanomas, created Sun Grubbies.
The San Diego-based company produces UV-protective clothing and accessories for men, women and children, including swimwear, gloves, sleeves, surfing attire, SPF fabric and golf-wear. It’s “Chic Sheik” hats include legionnaire-style neck drapes that prevent delicate skin from sizzling.
“Anything you put between you and the sun is going to block the rays, but the question is, how much?” Phillips says. Even wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt doesn’t guarantee the skin is free from the sun’s rays.
“You can get blind-sided,” Phillips says, “since cotton provides the least UV shielding of all the fabrics.” She suggests wearing clothing made with polyester, Lycra or hemp on sunny days.
Sun protection also helps prevent vividly colored tattoos and permanent make-up from fading, Phillips says.
Sun Grubbies showroom, 7519 Convoy Court, San Diego (Tuesdays and Thursdays 2 to 4 p.m. or by appointment)
*During the Roaring Twenties, fashion icon Coco Channel made the suntan a fashion accessory after she returned from a vacation in the French Riviera with a sun burn.
*In 1988, BMW billed its 325i convertible as “The Ultimate Tanning Machine.”
*In 1966, 3-year-old Jodie Foster made her acting debut as the Coppertone Girl in a TV commercial.
*The first sunscreen was invented in 1944 by Miami Beach pharmacist Benjamin Green, who cooked cocoa butter in a coffee pot on his wife’s stove, then tested it on his bald head. Its primary purpose was to protect World War II-era soldiers from the sun. Coppertone later obtained a patent on the product.
*According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2011 Sunscreen Report, only 34 percent of men use sunscreen on a regular basis, compared with 78 percent of women.
*The EWG report also found that while regular sunscreen use reduces the risk for slow-growing, treatable squamous cell carcinoma, it does not necessarily reduce one’s risk for other forms of skin cancer. People wearing sunscreen tend to stay out in the sun longer, so their total dose of UV radiation, particularly harmful UVA rays, may be higher than non-users. Also according to the EWG report, one to two million Americans develop skin cancer each year, making it five times more prevalent in the U.S. than breast or prostate cancers.