When I was 16, I was determined to “get a tan.” I worked the 3-to-11 shifts at the local hospital, so tanning time for me was from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. I slathered myself with a mixture of baby oil and iodine and lay by the public pool day after day. I was pale-skinned, with auburn hair and blue eyes. I burned and peeled day after day. At the end of this summer, I had amassed so much solar damage (freckles) that I did indeed appear to have a tan. 

I was lucky that that was the last summer I had free time to lie in the sun. Years later, however, that sun damage, along with my fair skin, blue eyes, and red hair, led an eminent skin cancer specialist to refer to me as a “poster child for melanoma”—even before he examined me. When he did, he found an early-stage melanoma on the top of my right shoulder. I was lucky that for years before I got this diagnosis I had known enough to get regular skin cancer checkups and to control my sun exposure zealously.

Now I am the woman walking down Madison Avenue with a parasol and gloves. I wear black and other dark colors because they prevent the ultraviolet radiation from being absorbed. And I have had great response to laser treatments that removed the skin discoloration that came from those days of “tanning” by the pool. I am sharing some of the basics about the dangers of sun exposure that I wish that I had known back then.

We know that the sun’s invisible light rays, known as ultraviolet radiation, can affect both skin health and appearance. This ultraviolet radiation is part of the light spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It is characterized by its wavelengths: ultraviolet A (long-wave) and ultraviolet B (short-wave). UVA and UVB are the forms of ultraviolet light that are known to affect the skin in harmful ways. By damaging the skin’s cellular DNA, excessive UV radiation produces genetic mutations that can lead to skin cancer and premature skin aging.

UVA radiation makes up most of the ultraviolet radiation that we are exposed to. It is present throughout the year, on cloudy days and in the winter weather as well. UVA penetrates to a deeper skin layer than UVB, and is now recognized as a major factor in the cause of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers.  People with fair skin, blue eyes and red or blond hair are thought to be at a greater risk of melanoma when exposed to UVA.

UVB rays are those primarily responsible for the red color of the skin from sun exposure and for sunburn, since cells in the superficial layer of the skin absorb these rays. UVB radiation, too, can damage the skin year round, especially at high altitudes.

The effectiveness of a sunscreen potion is indicated by its SPF (sun protection factor). In order to intelligently choose and use one of these products, it is important to understand that SPF measures how long it will take for UVB radiation to turn a sunscreen-wearer’s skin red compared with how long it would take for the skin to turn red without that sunscreen. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “someone using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will take 15 times longer to redden than without the sunscreen. An SPF 15 sunscreen screens 93 percent of the sun’s UVB rays; SPF 30 protects against 97 percent; and SPF 50, 98 percent.”

The problem with old-fashioned sunscreens is that they gave protection from UVB rays only. The federal government has instituted new regulations that must be in place by December of this year requiring that sunscreen products must pass the FDA’s test for protection against both UVA and UVB in order to be labeled as “broad spectrum.” The chemical filters in sunscreens absorb the UV radiation before it penetrates the skin. The physical sunscreens feature insoluble particles that reflect UV away from the skin. Most sunscreens have a mixture of chemical and physical active ingredients. 

Seven Steps to Protect Your Skin and Your Sight

Gimme shelter: Sun exposure dramatically increases the aging process. (Image: D.Clow via Flickr)

Gimme shelter: Sun exposure dramatically increases the aging process. (Image: D.Clow via Flickr)

• UV irradiation tends to be the strongest at peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), so avoid direct sun during these hours.

• Use sunscreen correctly. Sunscreens must be applied liberally, repeatedly, and to all sun-exposed parts of the skin to provide effective protection. Put it on 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the formation of a protective film on the skin, and reapply it every two hours. Reapply more frequently if you are sweating or in the water.

• Wear photo-protective clothing. UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) indicates how effective a fabric is at blocking out solar ultraviolet radiation. Clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection.

• Wear a hat with a broad brim to protect not only the scalp and face but also the exposed neck. 

• Wear sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of all UV radiation. Choose styles that cover the eyes, eyelids, and as much of the surrounding areas as possible. UV radiation increases cataracts and macular degeneration, along with melanoma and other cancers of the eye.

• UVA rays penetrate glass. Consider having your car windows tinted or buy a tinted film to apply to windows.

• Check with your pharmacist to make sure that you are not taking one of the many prescription or over the counter drugs (including potions for treating acne) that can increase sun sensitivity. If you are using these drugs, then sun avoidance is the best choice.

We can’t turn the clock back and take away our days of nonchalance under a dangerous sun, but we can choose to avoid further damage. The best exposure is no exposure. And don’t forget those skin cancer checks.