Protecting your skin from the summer sun is more complicated than selecting a sunscreen SPF, but it's well worth the effort.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and an estimated one in five of us will develop skin cancer during our lifetime, according to research compiled by the Skin Cancer Foundation. The leading cause of skin cancer, by far, is exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
We are exposed to two types of ultraviolet light from the sun — UVA and UVB — which complicates the choice of sunscreens. Until recently, sunscreens have absorbed only the more dangerous UVB.
"I recommend we use SPF 30 or higher. Sunscreen with parsol-1789 is good," says Dr. Douglas Naverson, a Medford dermatologist.
Parsol-1789 is a chemical that absorbs UVA light, so sunscreens with this chemical provide better overall sun protection. Helioplex by Neutrogena is one such brand. For extra protection, Naverson recommends using sunblock with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide: the familiar white cream we associate with the nose of a beach lifeguard. There is no single product, however, that will work for everyone.
"Buy one that your skin likes. It doesn't have to be the most expensive," says Naverson. "Guys often like a gel base. If they have oily skin, it blends in nicely. Some people with sensitive skin like a lotion base. Some of the kids like sprays."
It's also important to tailor your clothing to time in the sun. Choose more than just a wide-brimmed hat.
One of the more startling findings of the past few years is that clothing is not as much of a barrier to the sun as previously thought. Clothing is now rated with UPF or "ultraviolet protection factor." A UPF of 50 means that one-fiftieth of the sun's rays can penetrate the fabric.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, only clothes with a UPF of 15 or greater can be considered sun-protective. A white, cotton, loosely woven T-shirt can have a UPF of only 6. When wet, it can lose half its sun protection. Thicker, tightly woven, darker clothing tend to have higher UPF ratings.
"Companies are now making clothing with enhanced UPF. There also are products — like SunGuard — that you put in your laundry, and it gives the clothes a UPF of 30," says Naverson.
A suntan often is considered a sign of health and vitality, but you pay for it later in life, especially if you visit a tanning salon.
"Going to tanning salons is like paying to enter an aging machine; it will cause wrinkles, photo-aging, skin cancer and melanoma," warns Naverson.
Mounting medical evidence indicates that exposure to UVA light in a tanning salon leads to an increase in melanoma risk. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and often is fatal if not detected early.
These findings have led the World Health Organization to place tanning beds and lamps on the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation. Legislation to restrict the use of these artificial tanning devices has passed or is under consideration in at least eight states and several countries.
If you must have a quick tan, says Naverson, considering using tanning accelerators. These products darken your skin temporarily and wear off in one to two weeks. Take note: Tanning accelerators do not protect you from sunburn.
If you do get sunburned, a variety of natural skin products can help you heal.
"Treat your skin with aloe vera until the burn is gone," says Elise Herrick, a naturopathic doctor in Ashland.
"In Chinese medicine, ching wan hung is used as a burn ointment," says Herrick. "Homeopathic remedies like Urtica urens (stinging nettle) and belladonna are also effective."
Herrick recommends consuming anti-inflammatory foods to counteract sunburn, such as those containing omega-3 fatty acids: ground-up flaxseeds or walnuts, pumpkin seeds and fish. Zinc and vitamin-A supplements, as well as coconut oil, also are helpful.
Diet affects overall skin health, and healthy skin is better able to counteract the effects of sun exposure.
"Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables; they're antioxidants and can help counteract the oxidizing effects of sun exposure," recommends Herrick. "Also, drink a lot of water."
Our skin is our largest organ, one of several organs of elimination. It cools us through sweat and cleanses by releasing toxins. It also absorbs the lotions, creams and oils we rub on it. Read the label on sunscreens and skin moisturizers before buying, cautions Herrick.
"Anything you put on your skin gets absorbed, including the toxins. I avoid parabens, alcohols, colorings, fragrances, petroleum byproducts," says Herrick. "I've had patients who have had reactions to drugstore brands (of sunscreens). I recommend Alba Botanica and Dr. Hauschka."
A healthy diet, avoiding toxins and keeping the skin clean all promote health in the bigger picture. "Whole-body health keeps the skin healthy," adds Herrick. "It's all related."
People who are generally the most active often are most at-risk from the sun, something that Naverson finds ironic.
"It's good to remind the athletes of the world — the hikers, the runners, the bikers, mountain climbers, the tennis players, the golfers — their skin is on the firing line," says Naverson. "They're active people with the heart and lungs of a 20-year-old and the skin of an 80-year-old.
"So it's particularly important for them, while they're enjoying their sport, to cover up."