Be Sun Smart
To a certain extent, your skin can slowly adapt to UV radiation. A horny layer and darkening gives you some protection against the harmful rays – but not enough. Overexposure can still lead to many skin, eye and immune system disorders. Prevention is much easier, cheaper and less painful than treatment.
You shouldn’t lock yourself in a dark room, though. Measured exposure to sunshine is necessary to sustain life – your life. But what is too much sunshine?
There is no easy answer. Every person reacts differently to UV radiation. With an equal amount of radiation, some develop sunburn within minutes while others take hours. Always err on the safe side, especially if you are in a high-risk group. A respect for UV radiation is the key to sun-smart behavior.
Many governments educate their citizens comprehensively about the dangers of excessive UV radiation. Most Australians, for instance, are well aware of the dangers. But the belief that a suntan is healthy and attractive is still deeply engraved in the minds of the population. Women are generally more likely to obtain a suntan as a fashion statement. For many men, a suntan and leathery skin still represents the image of a rugged and healthy outdoor type. Youngsters spend more time in the sun than adults do and dismiss health warnings as something that doesn’t concern their immediate future. A skin cancer is for older people, they believe. The media doesn’t help the cause either. Celebrities and supermodels proudly exhibit a seamless tan.
There are signs, however, that those sun-smart campaigns are slowly changing the behavior. Sunscreens and even hats become essential items for some, but not all, sun worshippers. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of the melanoma rate has slowed in many countries.
Avoid the Sun
Stay out of the sun and you won’t have any problems. That’s like suggesting not driving the car so you won’t have any accidents, or don’t eat fruit because they are full of insecticides – all over-the-top statements. No one wants you to hide in a dark cave. Too little sunshine is as unhealthy as overexposure is.
UV radiation is most damaging when the rays strike a surface at a right angle. You receive most radiation during summer around noon when the sun is high in the sky, so if you can avoid the two hours before and after the sun’s zenith you drastically reduce the daily dose. This is particularly true at or near reflective surfaces such as water, sand and snow. The reflected UV rays are still strong enough to give you sunburn even in the shade, but burning takes up to twice as long.
Have you ever noticed how quiet nature becomes during a hot summer day? The animals are clever enough to have a siesta during the scorching midday hours. It is beyond my comprehension why organizers of sport or other activities schedule events during times of highest UV radiation – not to forget the health hazards of extreme heat that then come into play.
The Dangers of Tanning Beds
on the contrary. UVA light penetrates deeper into the skin than UVB light does and can equally damage or alter cell structures. Some devices emit several times more radiation than the sun does. Because damage accumulates, artificial UV radiation adds to sun exposure, so avoid tanning devices.
Slip Slop Slap
SLIP, SLOP, SLAP – slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat.’ This is the simple message anti-cancer organizations convey to potential sun seekers, especially children, in the hope that protection from UV radiation will reduce the number of skin cancer victims. Other organisations also advocate the wearing of appropriate clothing, sunglasses and sunscreens. But what is appropriate?
Sun Protective Clothing and Sunglasses
Broad-rimmed hats provide the best protection for all parts of the head. Unfortunately, many people see this type of hat as not very fashionable, particularly men. Baseball caps are popular instead. But while shading the face, they don’t protect ears and neck. Legionnaire hats are similar to baseball caps but have a flap in the back that protects the neck and to some degree the sides of the head.
Light-colored and loose-fitting garments provide ideal protection and comfort in the sun. UV radiation does penetrate fabric, though. The amount of radiation reaching the skin depends largely on its weave. The denser the weave, the less UV radiation can pass through the fabric. Today some manufacturers of recreational clothing offer garments made of treated fabrics, which can triple the blocking capacity.
The public does seem to hear the message to protect the eyes against UV radiation. Hats are not in vogue everywhere, but luckily sunglasses are. It doesn’t have to be the dark-tinted variety, as the darkness of the lenses only reduces glare. Treated clear prescription glasses and contact lenses can equally absorb UV radiation. Special sunglasses and goggles are available for certain sport and work activities.
Of course, you don’t want to enjoy the beach dressed like a mummy. Showing some flesh is part of the fun. Correctly used sunscreen can effectively protect those exposed body parts from harmful UV radiation. There is a catch: sunscreens only prolong the time before the skin is harmed. They may encourage people to stay in the sun longer, thus eliminating the benefits.
Sunscreen either absorbs, scatters or reflects UV radiation. Manufacturers advise the buyer on how well this process will work in their sunscreen. In most countries they are required by law to advertise the internationally accepted sun protection factor (SPF) for their product. The figure gives you an indication of how much longer you can stay in the sun before you get sunburn. For example, if you generally burn in 30 minutes without sunscreen, a product with a SPF rating of 15 should prolong the onset by a factor of 15, that is 7.5 hours.
Read the bottle’s instruction in fine print. This factor is only valid if you apply enough sunscreen and reapply it regularly. Because sunscreen is not cheap, most people don’t apply the required amount. Also, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen. This will protect you against UVA radiation and UVB radiation.
During UV radiation bombardments, some cell molecules quite often lose some of their components. These molecules, named free radicals, are then competing with neighboring molecules for ‘spare parts.’ The neighbors, however, may be a vital protein or DNA and can easily be damaged by the marauding free radicals – they oxidize.
A diet rich in antioxidants provides the free radicals with willing donors. Antioxidants in food sources such as fruit and vegetables, or in green tea and vitamin supplements, should reduce the risk of UV radiation damage. So far, however, the research is inconclusive.