Tips for dealing with exposure to the summer sun
With summer weather comes the arrival of health concerns associated with sun exposure. Lesson Number One: there is no such thing as a "safe" tan. Exposure to the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer (which researchers estimate will strike one in every 90 Americans by the year 2000). As the American Cancer Society puts it, "Fry now, pay later."
Many people have been taught to believe that white skin is more attractive when tanned, yet tanning is definitely aesthetically detrimental in the long run. It ages skin prematurely, weakens skin's elasticity and causes wrinkles. According to a spokesperson from the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency, most fashion models no longer get suntans because it decreases their longevity in the business. "They know tanning is aging to the skin, and no model wants to age any faster than she has to."
With the exception of the occasional die-hard couch potato, few people would want to live life exclusively indoors. No one can deny that sunlight is necessary for human beings to thrive. In moderation, sunlight does wonders for us physically and psychologically. One need only note the phenomenon of seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression linked to light deprivation during winter.
The question is, how can we enjoy our time in the summer sun and still protect ourselves from its skin-damaging and cancer-causing effects? Here are some tips:
1. Avoid sun at midday (between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.), when the rays are strongest and most direct.
2. Always apply a sunscreen about 30 minutes before going out in the sun, and continue to reapply it every two hours or so during sun exposure. Apply a total sun block to sensitive areas such as nose, lips, ears and tops of the feet. When swimming, use a waterproof sunscreen and reapply whenever you get out of the water.
3. Don't overexpose yourself on overcast days just because the sun doesn't "feel" strong. Eighty percent of the sun's burning ultraviolet rays can pass through even the thickest fog or haze.
4. Make judicious use of hats, umbrellas and other protective clothing. Don't forget sunglasses.
5. Be especially careful if you are taking antibiotics, sulfa drugs, antipsychotics, diuretics, Accutane or birth control pills--these medications increase your susceptibility to sunburn.
6. Sunscreens are labeled with an SPF number, which stands for Sun Protection Factor. If you feel you must get a tan, start with a sunscreen with an SPF of 12-15 for two days. Drop down to an SPF 10 until you're as dark as you want to be, then go back to a higher SPF. The higher the SPF number, the greater the level of protection. Select the SPF of your sunscreen based on your skin type, as follows:
*Those who burn easily and tan minimally (usually people with red or blonde hair, freckles, and/or fair skin) should use a product with an SPF of 15 or greater.
*Those who burn moderately and tan gradually, or burn minimally and tan easily, should use an SPF of 8 to 15.
African Americans and Caribbean Americans have a certain degree of natural protection against sunburn and do not need sunscreen as a matter of course. However, no one is "immune" to sunburn or skin cancer, and even the darkest skin can be harmed by prolonged exposure to the damaging rays of the sun.
Sometimes, even if you take precautions (and often because you chose not to), you will spend too much time baking and end up burned. A sunburn is the skin's response to the injury of too much sun; it is a protective reaction to absorption of the sun's rays. Here is what happens: the skin's top layer of cells produce melanin in response to sun exposure (melanin is a pigment that gives Caucasian skin a "tan" color). Overexposure to the sun results in an inability to produce enough melanin and a subsequent dilation of blood vessels in the second layer of skin. This allows increased blood flow to the burned area--hence, the red color of the skin. In more serious sunburn, plasma accumulates under the damaged skin and blisters form.
Sunburn can range from mildly annoying to temporarily debilitating to dangerous. Severe sunburn can be extremely painful, causing seeping, bubbly skin (which can result in permanent scarring), chills, fever, weakness, dizziness and nausea.
The best treatment for sunburn pain is a cool compress or a cool bath to which one tablespoon of baking soda has been added. Advil or aspirin also can be taken to relieve pain and swelling. To help heal the skin, apply aloe directly to the burned areas and slather on lots of skin moisturizer.
Mary Krueger is the coordinator of Health Education for the University Health Service. Wellness is coordinated by the Seretean Center for Health Promotion.