For as long as I can remember, the sun and I have not had the best of relationships. When I was five, my mother would devise every scheme imaginable to excuse me from outdoor gym activities. The reason? She was fearful that my then-alabaster skin would become the burnt-beech color it is now. The notes she attempted to send (I shredded them frantically on the bus) to the gym teacher were priceless. “She has allergy to the sun,” was one of the more ridiculous statements.
Well, not entirely ridiculous. When I hit the beach to escape the East Coast blizzard last winter, I came to the sad realization that the combination of UV light and salt water exposure can catalyze a violent skin rash. From that point forward, I began a modest quest to discover how to avoid wearing a cape or lathering on SPF 2000 every half hour.
Tanning is maligned by the FDA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer as much as it is worshipped by pop culture. The consensus among health organizations is that getting a suntan — far from making people look healthy — actually makes people more likely to develop dangerous melanomas (skin cancers). However, our tanning response to the potent UV rays is the body’s best biological fight against the wavelengths that pierce our skin and mutate our DNA.
The effect we see — darkening of the skin — is caused by the concentration of the pigment melanin around the nuclei of upper skin cells called keratinocytes. Though a protective safe-guard against DNA damage in skin cells, melanin expression is not a fool-proof guard. As Dr. David Fisher, director of the Melanoma Program in Medical Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, states in the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, “The trigger for tanning — UV radiation — is absolutely damaging and absolutely carcinogenic … but tanning itself appears to be an adaptive response to harmful stress.” Though our body’s ability to tan is a mechanism to fight UV radiation, seeking out these dangerous rays for the purpose of developing that summer glow is counterproductive. The Harvard Medical School guide stresses that “your best bet is to avoid excessive UV light exposure — especially if you’re blond or redheaded and don’t tan well, but also if you do.”
So how can we avoid the harmful after-effects of sun exposure? According to Mayo Clinic, you should avoid sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — when the sun’s rays are at their strongest — as a first defense. The FDA also recommends checking cosmetics labels for the ingredient alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs). AHAs increase sun sensitivity and potential risk for sunburn. Labels of cosmetics with AHAs must declare the presence of this ingredient, and the FDA recommends that they carry a sunburn alert statement.
In choosing sunscreen, Mayo Clinic recommends using products with SPF 15 or above and UVA/UVB protection; SPF 20 to 30 is recommended for people with very fair skin. Sun protectants should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure and be reapplied every hour or two. Lather a liberal amount of sunscreen over your entire face and exposed parts of your body. The FDA recommends about an ounce of sunscreen for each application — enough to fill a shot glass. Don’t forget to cover places like your lips, the back of your neck, the tops of your feet, and along your hairline. To get the maximum protection, apply a sunscreen with a higher SPF.
To add to the protective layer, think light: light-colored, light-weight clothing. Protective clothing should be tightly woven — if you can see rays of light piercing the cloth, it will not protect against UV rays. Wear a hat with a 4-inch brim and sunglasses that offer UV protection to prevent damage to your eyesight and facial skin.
Now that I’m armed with a few tools to combat the sun, I may just laugh in the face of my “sun allergy” and soak up some rays. UV, you can’t touch this.